By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — In the latest crisis for Britain’s beleaguered government, the international development secretary cut short a trip to Africa on Wednesday amid demands she be fired over unauthorized meetings with Israeli politicians, including the prime minister.
Priti Patel was flying back to London after Prime Minister Theresa May ordered her to return to face a reprimand and possibly the sack. She had been due to attend events in Uganda.
Patel has been under pressure since it was revealed that she held 12 meetings with Israeli groups and officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a vacation in Israel in August — and that she hadn’t told May or colleagues about it.
The meetings were arranged by Stuart Polak, a corporate lobbyist, member of the House of Lords and honorary president of the group Conservative Friends of Israel.
Patel said the meetings stemmed from her “enthusiasm to engage,” but critics accused her of breaching ministers’ code of conduct and making a major diplomatic gaffe.
After the visit, Patel discussed with her department the possibility of British aid being given to the Israeli army to support medical assistance for refugees from the Syrian civil war arriving in the Golan Heights.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Wednesday that Patel visited an Israeli military field hospital in the Golan Heights during her August trip. Britain regards Israel as illegally occupying the territory, which it captured from Syria in 1967.
Patel’s situation has been made worse by her contradictory statements about the meetings.
When news broke about the August trip, Patel insisted that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson “knew about the visit.” Her department was later forced to clarify the statement, saying “the foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
Patel apologized, saying the meetings “did not accord with the usual procedures.”
May summoned Patel to Downing St. after details of two more meetings emerged. She also met Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan in London on Sept. 7 and foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York on Sept. 18 — in both cases without any other British officials present.
The furor threatens the career of 45-year-old Patel, who has risen quickly through Conservative ranks since she was elected to Parliament in 2010. She has often been mentioned as a future leadership contender.
Labour Party lawmaker Jonathan Ashworth was skeptical about Patel’s claim that she wasn’t aware that she was doing anything wrong in meeting Netanyahu and the others.
“If she didn’t know, she’s incompetent. If she did, she’s lying,” he told Sky News. “Either way she’s got to go.”
If May fires Patel, she will be the second member of the increasingly unstable Cabinet to leave their job in a week. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon resigned Nov. 1 after sexual harassment allegations against him emerged.
Several lawmakers have been suspended by their parties amid a growing scandal over sexual harassment and abuse in British politics. May’s deputy prime minister, Damian Green, is facing a civil service investigation after a young party activist accused him of unwanted touches and text messages.
In another headache for the government, Johnson apologized Tuesday for saying a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran had been training journalists when she was arrested. The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says she was on vacation, and accused Johnson of putting her at risk of a longer prison sentence with his misleading comments.
The mounting troubles for May come as she tries to unite her fractious party and strike a Brexit deal with the European Union.