Rishi Sunak on Friday warned Binyamin Netanyahu of international concern over “growing tensions” with Palestinians, as a visit by Israel’s prime minister to the UK generated protests from British Jewish people.
The UK prime minister issued the unusually blunt message following events in Israel that prompted a leading Conservative MP to suggest London should start being a “critical friend” of the country.
In recent weeks, protests over a bitterly contested judicial overhaul have drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators across Israel and sparked political turmoil. Tensions were further inflamed by comments this week by finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who claimed there was “no such thing as a Palestinian people”.
On Friday, hundreds of Jewish protesters heckled Mr Netanyahu as he arrived at Downing Street for bilateral talks.
Downing Street said Mr Sunak had expressed “solidarity” with Israel in the face of a series of recent terrorist attacks by Palestinians on Israelis, and that London would always “stand with Israel and its ability to defend itself”.
But Downing Street also expressed concern that rising tensions in the region risked undermining efforts to reach a “two-state solution”, whereby fully fledged Palestinian and Israeli states would coexist.
Israeli soldiers have behaved aggressively in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority in recent weeks. In the most deadly incident, a raid by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Nablus killed 11 in February.
Downing Street said Mr Sunak had “outlined international concern at growing tensions in the West Bank and the risk of undermining efforts towards the two-state solution” and “encouraged all efforts to de-escalate”, particularly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover festival.
“The prime minister stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel,” Downing Street added.
Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism in the UK, attended Friday’s protest, saying beforehand that it was vital to defend Judaism against a “nationalist, literalist narrowing down”.
Mr Sunak held the meeting even though Alicia Kearns, Conservative chairwoman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, questioned beforehand whether it should go ahead.
After the talks between Mr Sunak and Mr Netanyahu, Ms Kearns said it was important that allies spoke “plainly”, adding: “This may be the start of the UK establishing a relationship with Israel where we can be a critical friend.”
Steve McCabe, a Labour MP and chair of the party’s Friends of Israel group, also voiced concern, telling an Israeli TV channel that Mr Netanyahu’s reforms to the country’s supreme court seemed “an extraordinary attack on the independence of the court and on the very core of Israeli democracy”.
Israel’s embassy in London wrote on Twitter that the two leaders had met and discussed “the Iranian nuclear issue”.
“The Israeli PM thanked PM Sunak for his country’s stand on this matter,” it said. The embassy made no reference to Mr Sunak’s concerns about democracy or rising tensions.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023