As a former MP, here's why I think Priti Patel's Israel links undermine British diplomacy in the Middle East
It seems that the British Home Secretary Priti Patel cannot resist the temptation to interfere in the Israel/Palestine conflict – even when it’s not a part of her job.
In 2017 when she was the UK’s aid minister under Theresa May, Patel was sacked after it emerged that she had held 17 secret meetings with Israeli government ministers while she was supposedly ‘on holiday’ in Jerusalem.
As if that wasn’t enough, Patel tried to divert UK aid money to an Israeli army hospital in the Golan Heights. She was found guilty of a breach of the ministerial code and was sent back to the back benches.
Less than two years later she was back in the Cabinet as Home Secretary, and it wasn’t long before she started interfering in the Middle East again, this time with the full support of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"Given that Patel was sacked for interfering in Israel-Palestine affairs when she was the aid minister, there is even less justification for a Home Secretary to be interfering in what is normally a purely diplomatic decision"
Patel seized the opportunity when last month, at a speech to a right-wing think-tank in Washington, she announced her plan to extend the designation of Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation – which current applies only to its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades – to encompass the entire political party.
Her reasoning was plausible, almost technical, as she justified the decision by saying, “The current listing of Hamas creates an artificial distinction between various parts of that organisation” and stating that she was merely trying to “update” it.
But this proscription – which went through the House of Commons a week later with very little opposition and without even a vote – contains two very big contradictions which will cause endless trouble in the future.
Firstly, as Oxford professor Avi Shlaim asked, “Why was the latest anti-Palestinian policy shift announced by the Home Secretary rather than the Foreign Secretary?”
The decision by the Tory UK government to ban Hamas has nothing to do with fighting antisemitism, according to Emad Moussa.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 23, 2021
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Given that Patel was sacked for interfering in Israel-Palestine affairs when she was the aid minister, there is even less justification for a Home Secretary to be interfering in what is normally a purely diplomatic decision.
There are two reasons why she got away with it this time. One is that she now has the support of the Prime Minister, who is a big fan of “the Prittster” as he called her when he was trying to save her from the sack.
Secondly, Patel has tried to argue that Palestine is in some way a domestic issue. She told her American audience that the designation of Hamas would “strengthen the case against anyone who waves a Hamas flag in the United Kingdom,” adding by way of explanation that flag-waving was “bound to make Jewish people feel unsafe.”
Professor Shlaim summed up the situation well: “Patel claims that designating the whole of Hamas as a terrorist organisation should be seen through a domestic prism: it will help to protect Jews in this country. This is preposterous.”
Patel seems unaware of the fact that Hamas is a political party that confines its activities to the historical borders of Palestine and is bound by its constitution to do so. Patel has come forward with no evidence of Hamas “terrorist” activity in the UK.
Yet despite this lack of evidence, the House of Commons has agreed to a change in the law which will mean that anyone who expresses support for Hamas, flies their flag or arranges meetings for the organisation will be in breach of a law that has a maximum jail sentence of 14 years.
But there is a second, even more important, reason why Patel’s intervention should be resisted, if the House of Lords even gets to debate it.
As the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt points out, “The difficulty we are giving ourselves here is that the jurisdiction of Gaza is run by Hamas. Nearly two million people are administered” by Hamas. In 2006, when Hamas emerged the unexpected winner of the Palestinian parliamentary elections, the then Labour government adopted a policy asserting that the UK government should have “no contact” with members of a Hamas government.
"The “terrorist” designation will fundamentally undermine the ability of the UK to push forward the process of reconciliation or negotiation, as well as undermine the motivation of the Palestinians to hold elections and build the Palestinian state"
That policy remains in place to this day, even though Israel has regular discussions with Hamas (a genuine policy of "no contact" would be inoperable), and the Foreign Office , then foreign secretary Jack Straw and even Tony Blair all now recognise that this approach was misguided.
The “terrorist” designation will fundamentally undermine the ability of the UK to push forward the process of reconciliation or negotiation, as well as undermine the motivation of the Palestinians to hold elections and build the Palestinian state. Why hold an election, and why vote in an election, if the US, UK and EU will refuse to recognise all except one result?
“At a deeper level,” says Professor Shlaim, “the shift in British policy was a product of the close ties between Israel and the Conservative Party.”
Priti Patel has been a fervent supporter of Conservative Friends of Israel ever since she was elected to Parliament in 2010. She was present at a private meeting in 2012 where backbenchers harangued Foreign Secretary William Hague for being under the thumb of a “pro-Arabist” Foreign Office. Patel was one of the new Conservative MPs at that meeting and urged the Foreign Secretary to be “more critical of the Palestinians”.
Many see this as a pivotal point in cementing the dominance of Conservative Friends of Israel over successive foreign secretaries of state, forcing them to follow every twist and turn of Israeli government policy and to consign the UK’s official policies to declaratory statements only.
As Avi Shlaim says of Patel in particular, she “needs no prompting to do Israel's bidding”.
Martin Linton is a British Labour Party politician, who was the Member of Parliament for Battersea from 1997 to 2010. Prior to becoming an MP he was a journalist for the Guardian from 1981–97.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.