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UK's Sunak cancels appearance with Netanyahu as Israelis rally in London

Amid protests in London against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul push, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canceled a planned joint press conference.
Britain's Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak (L), greets Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Downing Street on March 24, 2023 in London, England. Benjamin Netanyahu visits London against a backdrop of unrest at home. Protests are being held weekly across Israel against legislation being pushed through the Knesset by his government to restrain the judiciary. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canceled his joint presser with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled for Friday on the backdrop of the latter’s commitment to continuing his judicial overhaul.

Hundreds of protesters including Israelis living in London and British Jews gathered Friday morning outside the office of the British premier on 10 Downing Street, calling on Netanyahu to back off the judicial reform. Demonstrators shouted “Shame!" in Hebrew as Netanyahu's convoy arrived. They held signs saying “Dictators are not welcome,” and “Sunak, do not let Bibi turn Israel into another Iran.”

The two leaders were expected to give a joint press conference, but Sunak's office canceled at the last minute despite pressure by Netanyahu’s associates. Netanyahu's arrival and his handshake with Sunak were recorded by photographers but not the Israeli journalists accompanying the delegation.

Addressing Israelis on TV Thursday, Netanyahu pledged to continue the approval process for the judicial overhaul, with a central element of the plan to be adopted by the Knesset this coming Monday.

Israeli news outlets reported that the British Jewish community had been pressuring Sunak in the past few days to express his criticism of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did in his meeting with Netanyahu in Berlin last week. Sunak was reportedly reluctant to make such a public statement.

Nevertheless, in the past few weeks, London has been critical of Netanyahu’s government. Foreign Minister James Cleverly made it clear last month his government will not work with Netanyahu's far-right ministers, particularly National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. “The UK government has not engaged Itamar Ben-Gvir in his role as Minister of National Security, and we have no current plans to do so,” Cleverly wrote in a letter to the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

Last year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which is the community’s mainstream umbrella organization, slammed statements by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich against Arabs and against the LGBTQ community, tweeting in Hebrew that they “reject the abominable views and the hate-provoking ideology of Bezalel Smotrich. We call on all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door. Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever.”

Netanyahu was eager to laud the British stance against the Iran nuclear plan at a time when European leaders are pushing to renew dialogue with Tehran, which was why his office pushed so hard for a joint declaration with Sunak. Last week, senior diplomats from France, Germany and Great Britain (the E3 group) met in Oslo with Iranian diplomats to discuss a wide range of topics including the Iranian nuclear plan. Still, European sources clarified to Al-Monitor that the meeting was informal and not aimed at relaunching the JCPOA negotiations.

Israel is seeking London’s support in expanding sanctions against Iran and in designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror organization. An official statement published after the meeting by Netanyahu's office read that the leaders "discussed the Iranian nuclear issue" and that Netanyahu thanked his British counterpart for his country's determined position on the matter, noting that pressure on Iran must be increased.

Sources at the office of the British premier said that Sunak spoke with Netanyahu not only about the Iranian nuclear issue, but also the judicial overhaul. Sunak reportedly emphasized the importance of protecting the democratic values that form the basis for Israel-UK bilateral relations.

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