Rishi Sunak lightly challenges Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu as visit sparks protests

The two leaders met on Friday at Downing Street while demonstrations took place outside

Rishi Sunak has lightly challenged Benjamin Netanyahu on his controversial judicial overhaul and the Israel-Palestine conflict, but also spoke of strengthening ties.

As the British leader met his Israeli counterpart at No. 10's door for a handshake, shouts of "shame" in Hebrew could be heard from protesters, waving Israeli flags and placards stating their aim of "saving Israeli democracy".

The visit comes as Mr Netanyahu faces waves of protests over his judicial overhauls that critics say will drag the nation towards autocracy.

Demonstrators campaigning for Palestinian human rights also protested the visit. An Amnesty International activist wearing a Netanyahu mask carried a sign reading "I love apartheid".

A protester holds a sign reading 'I love apartheid.' Credit: Amnesty International UK

Downing Street said the leaders’ 45-minute meeting focused on "strengthening the close partnership" between the two nations and their backing of a free trade agreement.

"Shared security and defence challenges" such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat posed by Iran were prominent in the discussion.

But Mr Sunak did dedicate a smaller part of the meeting to raising difficult subjects, including "international concern at growing tensions in the West Bank and the risk of undermining efforts towards the two state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The prime minister stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel," a statement from No 10 said, hinting at a delicate challenge of his policy.

Mr Sunak and Mr Netanyahu pictured in the Cabinet room in Downing Street. Credit: Flickr/Number 10

Mr Sunak said he looked forward to visiting Israel at the "earliest opportunity" after being extended an invite by Mr Netanyahu.

Asked whether the prime minister is concerned about fostering closer ties amid the current fears, Downing Street stressed that Israel is a "vital international partner".

The Israeli leader is also expected to meet Home Secretary Suella Braverman to discuss dealing with “global terrorism” according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office.

Mr Netanyahu was forced to push back his departure time for the official trip to the UK as he sought to deal with mass protests in Israel which have seen major roads blocked and scuffles with police.

Demonstrators outside Downing Street. Credit: PA

After a series of scandals involving wealthy associates, Mr Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He denies wrongdoing.

His right-wing nationalist coalition has approved legislation that would protect him from being deemed unfit to rule.

Critics say the law is tailor-made to shield the leader from his corruption trial and his government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, is dragging the nation towards authoritarianism by upending its system of checks and balances.

Members of the crowd urged Mr Sunak to "stand up for democracy" in Israel.

Talli, an Israeli tech worker who has been living in London for six years, said she was protesting against Mr Netanyahu’s "judicial coup".

"He’s trying to gain power while on trial and he’s trying to turn Israel into a non-democratic country," she said.

"We want not just Rishi Sunak but the international community and leaders to apply pressure on Netanyahu - whether it’s financial deals, or anything at all - to back down on this coup.

"My family and friends all live in Israel and I’m worried about their futures."

'Hands off women's rights', one placard reads. Credit: AP
Protesters dressed like the women in The Handmaid's Tale outside Downing Street. Credit: AP

Chamutal Isaacs, a childbirth support worker who moved to London from Tel Aviv 32 years ago, said the overhaul would mean "an end to any sort of democracy in Israel".

"I want Rishi Sunak to say to him he must lose his chair, he can’t continue to be the prime minister of Israel. He’s destroying democracy in Israel," she said.

A protester holds a sign reading: 'Pro Democracy and Anti Occupation'. Credit: PA
Protesters on Whitehall Credit: PA

A smaller number of protesters for Palestine were also in Westminster, as charities criticised Mr Sunak for seeking to foster closer ties with Israel.

Oxfam policy adviser Richard Stanforth said: "It is unconscionable that the prime minister will roll out the red carpet for Benjamin Netanyahu with the aim of deepening diplomatic ties, despite the Israeli government committing horrific human rights violations every day, seemingly with impunity."

Amnesty International UK’s Kristyan Benedict accused the UK government of "turning a blind eye to apartheid atrocities".

"Netanyahu is more concerned with seeking legitimacy for his government rather than addressing its increasingly extremist policies, his occupation forces in the Palestinian territories killing civilians, stealing their land and building illegal new settlements," he said.

"The UK and Israel’s rejection of this reality will not change the truth or illegality of the current situation. All it does is help entrench Israel’s racist system of apartheid against Palestinian people."

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