LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stressed the importance of Israel “upholding democratic values” in his low-profile meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London on Friday, in a visit that was largely overshadowed by the Israeli leader’s domestic problems.
While the Israeli readout of the meeting did not mention anything about the judicial overhaul that is dominating headlines about Israel around the world, the British readout noted that Sunak stressed to Netanyahu “the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel.”
The statement from 10 Downing Street also stressed “international concern at growing tensions in the West Bank,” and encouraged “all efforts to de-escalate, particularly ahead of the upcoming religious holidays.”
Netanyahu’s convoy was greeted Friday morning in London by several hundred Israeli and Jewish protesters chanting against the prime minister and his government’s controversial judicial overhaul.
He greeted and shook hands with Sunak outside 10 Downing Street before the pair quickly entered the UK prime minister’s residence.
Video from the scene showed Netanyahu walking up to the residence as cries of “shame” echoed up the street.
The meeting with Sunak also appeared to be toned down and in an unusual move, there was no public address of any kind from the two leaders.
Reporters traveling with Netanyahu were initially told that they could enter 10 Downing Street for opening statements before the two leaders met behind closed doors, but Friday morning they were then told that no reporters would be entering to document the pair’s initial comments. No reasons were given.
— Yanir Cozin – יניר קוזין (@yanircozin) March 24, 2023
Sunak has faced pressure in recent days to publicly comment on Israel’s contentious judicial shakeup, leading to speculation that he chose to forgo any public comments with Netanyahu in order to avoid taking a stance.
During Netanyahu’s visit to Berlin last week, he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly sparred during a press conference over the government’s continued push of legislation that will greatly expand political control over Israel’s courts.
Following Friday’s meeting, Netanyahu’s office said his conversation with Sunak centered around the Iranian nuclear threat, and that he thanked the British prime minister for his position on the issue, but noted that more pressure needed to be applied to Tehran. Sunak’s statement said the two leaders discussed Iran and “agreed that our governments would continue to work closely together to push back against aggression and manage the risk of nuclear proliferation.”
Netanyahu also said that he invited Sunak to visit Israel in the near future. According to the British readout, Sunak said he “looked forward to visiting Israel at the earliest opportunity.”
Netanyahu was slated to meet later Friday with UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, also without any public statements or press conference. He currently has no other official meetings scheduled during his trip — and no meetings with Jewish communal leaders — but is slated to remain in London until early Sunday morning.
Netanyahu has been widely panned for spending several recent weekends in European capitals with his wife at the taxpayer’s expense.
Hundreds of protesters waving Israeli flags and signs decrying Netanyahu’s government greeted the prime minister outside 10 Downing Street. The demonstrators held signs reading “Saving Israeli Democracy” and “Put Bibi behind bars” and chanted “shame” and “democracy” in Hebrew.
— Yanir Cozin – יניר קוזין (@yanircozin) March 24, 2023
Across the street, a pro-Palestinian protest also gathered outside the Sunak-Netanyahu meeting, with each side attempting to drown the other out with chants and speeches.
Shauna Ash, an Israeli who now lives in London, said she came out to demonstrate “for the democracy of Israel.”
“I’ve got lots of friends and family in Israel and the changes the [overhaul] will have on them will be catastrophic so it’s my way of showing my support,” she said.
Alan Curtis, a British Jew, said he attended the protest “because I think this is a threat not just to Israel, but to the whole Zionist enterprise and to the Jewish people,” he said.
Curtis said his family and friends in Israel “are going to demonstrate every Saturday night, so the least I can do is come here.” He said he hoped Sunak would publicly comment on the controversy, but he didn’t expect any statement, “because I know how British diplomacy works, and it would be seen as interference.”
Netanyahu has been greeted by protests by Israelis and Jews on all his recent overseas visits, continuing the widespread protests that have rocked Israel for the past two months.
2500 מפגינים מול 10 דאונינג סטריט????????. ההצהרה המשותפת בוטלה, (לא) מצטערות על רעש הדמוקרטיה!???????? We hear that the joint statement was cancelled – 2500 protesters are (not) sorry for echoing the voice to #DefendIsraeliDemocracy!#RishiSaveIsrael
Posted by נאבקים על הדמוקרטיה בבית Defend Israeli Democracy on Friday, March 24, 2023
As it stands, the legislative package will — among other things — allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of judges in the hands of coalition politicians.
While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril and leaving the rights of many undefended.
Netanyahu arrived in London at the same time as Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara issued a scathing statement informing the prime minister that he has violated the conflict of interest agreement that allows him to govern during his ongoing corruption trial, and called his statements Thursday night and any further involvement in the coalition’s judicial overhaul “illegal and tainted by a conflict of interest.”
The harshly worded letter from Baharav-Miara came after Netanyahu announced that he would henceforth ignore the conflict of interest deal and deeply involve himself in the unfolding, deeply controversial judicial overhaul legislation.
The London trip marks the third weekend in a row that Netanyahu has jetted off to a European capital, after visits to Rome and Berlin in the last two weeks.
Netanyahu and his family have been accused in the past of spending taxpayer money liberally for creature comforts or personal expenses; in 2013, he came under fire for having the state spend $127,000 to outfit a plane with a bed so he could get some sleep during a four-hour flight to London for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
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.
The meeting was Sunak’s first with a senior Israeli government official since he came into office in October. In November, he met with President Isaac Herzog on the sidelines of the UN climate summit in Egypt.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.