Rishi Sunak emphasised the need to uphold democratic values when he met Benjamin Netanyahu for talks on Friday, the British prime minister’s office has said, in a reference to the Israeli government’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary.
Sunak has faced calls to do more to distance the UK from his Israeli counterpart and the extremism of Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition government, which has faced mass protests over its attempts to increase politicians’ power over the courts.
After a meeting at Downing Street in London on Friday, Sunak’s office said he had “stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel”.
Netanyahu has left behind a country in turmoil and his coalition government riven by splits over whether it should defer judicial changes that have led to 11 weeks of rallies and revealed deep fissures in Israeli society.
He was met by hundreds of protesters when he arrived at 10 Downing Street, with demonstrators holding up Israeli flags and shouting chants, such as “Boosha!”, which means “for shame!” in Hebrew, and “Netanyahu go to jail, you can’t speak for Israel!”
The Israeli prime minister was keen for his visit to focus on the threat posed to world security by Iran’s nuclear programme. It coincided with the US striking an Islamic Revolutionary Guard-linked site inside Syria in reprisal for the killing of a US contractor at a US army base.
However, the succession of domestic protests, and increasing violence in the West Bank, is threatening to overwhelm Netanyahu’s wider foreign policy goals.
During the meeting the two leaders discussed “the UK and Israel’s significant concern about Iran’s destabilising activity” and the risk of “nuclear proliferation” posed by its atomic programme, Downing Street said. Its statement contained a promise to reach a free trade deal with Israel shortly, as well as a commitment that Sunak would visit Israel in the near future.
“The UK would always stand with Israel and its ability to defend itself,” Sunak’s office said. “At the same time, the PM outlined international concern at growing tensions in the West Bank and the risk of undermining efforts towards the two-state solution. He encouraged all efforts to de-escalate, particularly ahead of the upcoming religious holidays.”
The importance of Iran to the agenda was underlined by the national security advisers from both sides holding further talks after the two prime ministers had finished their discussions.
UK politicians had called on Sunak not to roll out the red carpet for Netanyahu. The chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns, cautioned of the danger of a third intifada, adding that she was not sure that Netanyahu coming to Britain now was wise.
“Israel has many friends in parliament and people here are used to defending it, but we may be moving to a different place. If the constitutional conflict deepens, criticism of the Israeli government will become much more mainstream.”
She added that new Israeli government policies were causing great unease. She said: “We don’t want to see ministers suggesting that Jordan doesn’t exist, or the expansion of West Bank settlements.”
The Liberal Democrat group of MPs issued a letter to Sunak saying Netanyahu’s visit risked sending a signal that the UK supported Israel’s actions, and urged the prime minister to challenge the threat to judicial independence.
There is also deep frustration among some Arab diplomats at what they see as a British business-as-usual approach to an Israeli government they say is different in character to any of its predecessors, a fact they feel Britain is failing to acknowledge. It is being contrasted with the more robust stance being taken by the Biden administration
The anger, in part, stems from the UK signing a map of friendship with Israel, marking out plans for closer bilateral ties until 2030. The document made no reference to a two-state solution for the Palestinian issue.
The Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, described the roadmap and Netanyahu’s visit as a profound step backwards for the chances of peace based on a two-state outcome. The 2030 agreements, he said, represented “an abdication of the UK’s responsibilities under international law and the UK’s unique responsibility for the Palestinian issue”.
He said in the context of quickening settlement development, a rise in settler terrorism and avowedly racist remarks being made by members of the Netanyahu’s government, the UK was “sending precisely the wrong message at the wrong time” by rewarding Israel with expanded trade technology and security ties.
The Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, who met the UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, on Wednesday, has been infuriated by the claims of Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who said there was no such thing as Palestinian people.
Safadi followed up his protests in a phone call on Thursday with the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel, saying the Israeli government must reject “the reckless and disgusting remarks” of its finance minister.