As judicial overhaul advances and fight heats up, Netanyahu heading for London

PM to meet British counterpart Rishi Sunak to talk Iran during weekend trip, with protesters preparing rallies against his domestic policies

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media ahead of his departure to Germany on March 15, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media ahead of his departure to Germany on March 15, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

As hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets once again to protest the government’s judicial overhaul, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to take off late Thursday for a weekend visit to the United Kingdom.

The trip, during which Netanyahu will meet with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is the latest in the Israeli leader’s series of visits to European capitals. Since the beginning of February, Netanyahu has already traveled to Paris, Rome, and Berlin, with the former two visits stretching over the Jewish Sabbath.

Netanyahu’s London trip will also keep him and his wife Sara in the UK until Saturday night at the taxpayers’ expense, leading to some criticism that the scheduling is an irresponsible use of public funds.

The Prime Minister’s Office maintains that the timing of the trips is determined by the hosts’ schedules, and that he cannot be away from the Knesset mid-week because of crucial votes on the judicial overhaul, among other coalition priorities.

Netanyahu has sought to focus the visits on the threats posed by Iran, and will do so in London as well, according to his office.

“At the center of their meeting will stand the Iranian issue,” said the PMO in a statement, “and the need to form a unified international front against Iran with the goal of stopping the nuclear program.”

A student looks at Iran’s domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Netanyahu and Sunak will also discuss strengthening bilateral ties, especially in defense and intelligence.

The meeting is Sunak’s first with a senior Israeli official since he came into office in October.

The UK is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and is, along with Germany and France, one of the European signatories to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran.

However, it left the European Union in 2020, and has been working to chart an independent foreign policy course.

On Tuesday, the framework for the future of bilateral Israel-UK ties was signed in London by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) signs the 2030 Roadmap Agreement with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in London, March 21, 2023. (Stuart MItchell)

According to the UK’s Foreign Office, the 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israeli Bilateral Relations “contains detailed commitments for deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender.”

Though public statements avoided Israel’s bitter internal fight over the judicial overhaul during Cohen’s visit, Netanyahu won’t be able to avoid it as easily.

As originally reported by Army Radio, a British diplomat met recently with an opposition MK who said she wanted Sunak to publicly oppose the overhaul. According to Channel 12 news, Sunak and British officials have not yet decided whether the British prime minister will publicly criticize Netanyahu’s government over the matter.

The issue is expected to come up in the leaders’ private meeting, but as there are currently no public statements or press conferences planned, there may be no opportunity for Sunak to express a stance publicly beyond the readout of their conversation, which is currently being discussed between the two sides.

During the premier’s trip to Germany earlier this month, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Netanyahu publicly sparred over the overhaul plan in front of the cameras.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak during a joint press conference following talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

Netanyahu will be met in London by protesters against the judicial overhaul, in addition to the anti-Israel demonstrators that regularly await Israeli leaders in Europe.

A flyer stuck to the side of a London Underground carriage on March 20, 2023 announcing demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to London (Channel 12 screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright law)

Organizers of demonstrations against the overhaul have announced there will be a rally held in central London.

Signs have been spotted around London giving details of the protest and saying “Bibi should not expect a relaxing weekend in London.”

Students clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, near the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters in London held signs in both Hebrew and English reading “A government of criminals will not appoint judges” and “Israelis for the future of Israel.” They chanted “Democracy,” and some showed up in “Handmaid’s Tale” costumes that have become a hallmark of the protests in Israel.

The PMO has not provided  many details regarding his plans while in the United Kingdom. As of late Thursday morning, journalists traveling with Netanyahu had still not received details about the flight, only that they would be departing “late at night.”

The opacity might be related to protesters’ attempts to disrupt Netanyahu’s travel to the airport, as they have tried to do in his previous trips.

Hundreds rally against the Israeli government’s controversial judicial overhaul proposal in London, March 12, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

There has been no announcement of any meetings with Jewish communal leaders. According to Channel 12, it was not yet clear if such meetings would be held, raising further questions about the need for the premier and his wife to spend days in the British capital.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews umbrella organization said in a statement Tuesday that it “would appreciate the opportunity to meet [Netanyahu] to discuss the ongoing situation in the country” during his trip, especially in light of the UK Jewish community’s “close emotional, spiritual and familial connection to Israel.”

But the group noted that “we understand that given the brief nature of his visit, such a meeting may not be possible.”

Most Popular
read more: