LONDON – In a new blow to Britain's beleaguered government, the U.K. international development secretary quit Wednesday over unauthorized meetings with Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Priti Patel resigned after being ordered back from a trip to east Africa and summoned to 10 Downing St. by Prime Minister Theresa May. If she had not quit, she would almost certainly have been fired.
Patel is the second Cabinet departure in a week for a government facing crisis on several fronts, including divisions over Brexit and growing allegations of sexual misbehavior in politics.
Patel has been under pressure since it was revealed last week that she held 12 meetings with Israeli groups and officials, including Netanyahu, during a vacation in Israel in August -- and that she hadn't told May or colleagues about it.
Patel apologized, but when details of two further meetings emerged, May acted.
In her resignation letter, Patel said her conduct "fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state."
May replied that it was right Patel had decided to quit "and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated."
Patel said earlier that her meetings in Israel -- arranged by Stuart Polak, honorary president of the group Conservative Friends of Israel -- stemmed from her "enthusiasm to engage." But critics accused her of breaching ministers' code of conduct and making a major diplomatic gaffe in a region of high political sensitivity.
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.
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. A fellow minister has said the idea was rejected.
Patel's situation had 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 demotion to backbench lawmaker cuts short a rapid rise for 45-year-old Patel, who was first elected to Parliament in 2010, became international development secretary in 2016 and has often been mentioned as a future leadership contender.
Labour Party lawmaker Jonathan Ashworth said Patel's position was untenable even if she had been unaware she was breaking rules when she met 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."
Patel's departure is an unwelcome new headache for May, and follows the Nov. 1 resignation of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon 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.
May's critics say her failure to fire the foreign secretary shows how weak she is in the wake of June's snap election, which May called in a bid to boost the Conservative majority in Parliament.
The move backfired, and she now leads a minority government deeply divided between proponents and opponents of Britain's exit from the European Union.
Divisions within the British government about what sort of post-Brexit relationship the U.K. wants with the bloc are complicating divorce negotiations, and the clock is ticking down to Britain's departure in March 2019.