Rishi Sunak will meet Benjamin Netanyahu in Downing Street on Friday, amid calls for him to do more to distance the UK from the Israeli prime minister and the extremism of his rightwing coalition government.
The chief rabbi in London, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, called for unity among British Jews as demonstrators prepared to gather in central London to protest at the visit.
Netanyahu is flying to Britain, leaving behind a country in turmoil and his coalition government riven by splits over whether it should defer judicial reforms that have led to 11 weeks of rallies and revealed deep fissures in Israeli society.
The Israeli prime minister will want the London talks with his UK counterpart to focus on the threat posed to world security by Iran’s nuclear programme, and his trip comes after the US revealed it had hit an Islamic Revolutionary Guard-linked site inside Syria as a reprisal for the killing of a US contractor at a US army base in north-east Syria.
A promise by Netanyahu on Thursday night that he was taking direct charge of the judicial reforms did little to quell the turmoil in the country as he insisted the changes were not designed to neuter the judiciary but rebalance power within Israel’s institutions.
Netanyahu’s scheduled flight to London had been pushed back to the early hours on Friday morning to allow him time to deal with the crisis.
There had been hopes that before leaving, he would announce the temporary shelving of the changes after a threatened rebellion from Yoav Gallant, his defence minister. Gallant, a former deputy chief of the armed forces, warned him that pressing ahead with the controversial reforms would weaken the Israel Defence Forces, and potentially lead to the call-up of reservists being boycotted.
Netanyahu’s trip to London, cancelled last week, was originally billed as a chance for him to set out his demand that the west support Israel if it feels necessary to take military action against Iran’s nuclear programme. Back-channel diplomatic talks have been held in Norway to urge Iran to understand the risks posed by continuing to amass stockpiles of enriched uranium at levels as high as 60%.
US administration officials continued to say that options other than economic sanctions would be considered against Tehran
But the succession of domestic protests, and spiralling violence in the West Bank, is threatening to overwhelm Netanyahu’s wider foreign policy goals. He has so far visited Germany and Italy to discuss the Iran crisis.
UK politicians called on Sunak not to roll out the red carpet for Netanyahu. The chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Alicia Kearns, warned of the risk of a third intifada, adding she was not sure that Netanyahu coming to Britain now was a wise move.
“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 major 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 his invitation risks sending a signal that the UK is supportive of Israel’s actions and urging 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 claim is different in character to any of its predecessors, a fact they feel the British are 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 roadmap of friendship with Israel, marking out plans for closer bilateral ties until 2030. The document signed with Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, 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, “represents 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 spike in settler terrorism, and avowedly racist remarks being made by members of the Neyanyau’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. Jordan summoned the Israeli ambassador in Amman on Monday to warn him that his remarks constituted racist and extremist behaviour that violates international norms.
Safadi followed up his protests in a phone call on Thursday with the European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrel, warning the Israeli government must reject “the reckless and disgusting remarks” of its finance minister. He said: “Nothing including coalition politics justifies silence on this behaviour. Appeasing such radicalism is a danger to us all.”
His remarks reflect anger that some western governments are fearful of intervening in case it destabilises Israeli politics further.