Reporter's notebook

Bookended by protests, Netanyahu’s London trip overshadowed by overhaul dissent

From his arrival at 10 Downing Street until his departure from the Savoy Hotel, Israel’s prime minister could not escape now-familiar demonstrations and cries of ‘shame’

Amy Spiro

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

A sign reading 'Democracy' adorned with Israel's Declaration of Independence at a protest outside the Savoy Hotel in London where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was staying on March 24, 2023. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)
A sign reading 'Democracy' adorned with Israel's Declaration of Independence at a protest outside the Savoy Hotel in London where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was staying on March 24, 2023. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

The chants likely sounded familiar.

Cries of “de-mo-cra-cy” and “shame” in Hebrew rang out through most of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s weekend trip to London.

If the Israeli leader thought he could escape his domestic troubles in the British capital, he was sorely mistaken. From the moment he arrived at 10 Downing Street Friday morning to meet with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to the moment his convoy departed the Savoy Hotel to head to Heathrow Airport, he was met with protests echoing those that have wracked Israel in recent weeks.

From Sunak’s barely-there reference to the judicial overhaul in his official statement on their meeting that nevertheless dominated headlines to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s public call to halt the legislation, before Shabbat even ended in London, the trip was bookended by signs that Netanyahu had much more pressing issues than UK-Israel relations on his plate.

Outside 10 Downing Street, a couple of hundred protesters — mostly Israelis, but also some British Jews — gathered as Netanyahu arrived to meet Sunak. As the prime minister got out of his car and walked toward the door, cries of “shame” were clearly audible, including in all video footage of his approach.

In an unusual move, the pair made no public comments or statements of any kind, after Sunak faced days of pressure to publicly criticize Israel’s judicial overhaul. Reporters were not invited into 10 Downing Street to document the start of their meeting as is standard and as had been earlier promised.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 10 Downing Street in London on March 24, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The British readout of their meeting made a vague reference to the overhaul, noting toward the end of the statement “the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel.”

An Israeli official present during the Sunak-Netanyahu meeting said the issue of the judicial overhaul was only discussed for “45 or 47 seconds” during their approximately 50-minute sit-down.

But that line — amid an otherwise largely boilerplate statement about the UK-Israel relationship — and the surrounding protests were what dominated headlines about the meeting in the Israeli, British and international press.

And the demonstrations did not end there. On Friday afternoon Netanyahu was greeted outside the Savoy Hotel where he was staying with yet another protest by those opposed to the judicial overhaul. And the next day, the protesters were back once again, with a raucous demonstration outside the hotel from mid-afternoon until the prime minister departed for the airport around 9 p.m. on Saturday.

Netanyahu also did not meet with any British Jewish groups during his time in London, citing scheduling difficulties, though he did find time to record an interview with UK journalist Piers Morgan on Saturday evening. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main communal umbrella organization, has been sharply critical of some members of Netanyahu’s coalition.

The protests in London largely echoed those that have been held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across Israel for the past 12 weeks: displays of the Israeli Declaration of Independence; signs in Hebrew and English decrying Netanyahu as a dictator; and chants and shouts in Hebrew about defending democracy. Many of the protesters said they had friends and family in Israel attending demonstrations, and felt they were doing their part by showing up this weekend.

As Netanyahu’s convoy departed the Savoy Hotel, a staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office urged reporters to board the minibus instead of photographing the protesters who had gathered nearby, saying that we were leaving imminently; the bus did not depart for about another 10 minutes.

As the convoy made its way out of the hotel, dozens of British police officers were on hand to hold back the crowds of protesters shouting and yelling as Netanyahu departed London after about 40 hours on the ground.

Netanyahu’s trip to London was his fourth visit to a European capital in recent weeks, after spending time in Paris, Rome and Berlin. He has faced criticism for extravagant spending during his visits, while critics have questioned the necessity of such trips and the need for him to stay the weekend (which he did each time except for Berlin). His office has countered that he needs to be in the Knesset on Thursdays and cannot fly on Shabbat.

Protesters outside 10 Downing Street in London as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on March 24, 2023. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

In each city, he was met with local protests of Israelis decrying the judicial overhaul. But in London the demonstrations appeared to ramp up, held in multiple locations on multiple days, providing Netanyahu with little respite from the now-familiar chants.

As Shabbat in London ended and the Prime Minister’s Office staff began to pack up and prepare for departure, Netanyahu was hit with yet another blow, as Gallant gave a speech calling for the overhaul legislation to be paused as it poses a threat to national security.

Netanyahu did not provide a customary statement to press before boarding the flight in either Tel Aviv or London this weekend. In a briefing with reporters on Friday, the prime minister made it clear that he believes the media is focusing entirely too much on the overhaul and not on the pressing danger of Iran. He repeated many of his familiar claims: that protesters are uninformed of the legislation’s impact; that such reforms will bring Israel in line with other nations; and that the High Court has been acting against the will of the majority.

Yet even more than 2,000 miles from home, Netanyahu could not successfully distance himself, the nation or the world from the controversy that is threatening to tear Israel in half.

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