Benjamin Netanyahu's talks with Rishi Sunak trigger concerns over UK-Israel deal

Israel's longest-serving PM will touch down in Britain for the first time since his re-election

Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the press before a meeting at No 10 Downing Street in September 2019. Getty Images
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Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Rishi Sunak in London on Friday looks set to be overshadowed by protests and concerns over a new bilateral deal.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s first official visit to Britain since being re-elected comes amid escalating violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank, while British Jews and Israeli expats are expected to demonstrate in London against the Netanyahu government’s proposals to reform the judicial system.

The Labour Party on Thursday urged Mr Sunak to use the talks to raise concerns about human rights and international law amid continuing violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli leader’s trip comes just days after the two countries signed a deal set to define relations until the end of the decade. The 2030 Roadmap signed by the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and his counterpart Eli Cohen in London on Tuesday aims to boost bilateral ties in trade, cyber, defence and security.

The Palestinian Mission to the UK expressed its “utmost dismay” at signing of the document, saying the developments “mark a profound step backwards for chances of peace based on a two-state outcome”.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to Britain, said the Roadmap “represents an abdication of the UK’s responsibilities under international law and the UK’s unique historic responsibility for the Palestinian issue.” He said by agreeing to expand trade with Israel, the UK is sending “precisely the wrong message at precisely the wrong time.”

The Roadmap includes £20 million ($24.5 million) of joint funding commitments on technology and innovation.

Other areas encompassed in the deal include science, research and development, health and climate.

Before signing the deal, Mr Cohen said Britain was “one of Israel’s greatest allies”.

Mr Cleverly said the agreement was a “testament to the strength of our close and historic relationship”.

The Palestinian Mission also criticised Mr Netanyahu’s coalition government for pushing ahead with construction of settlements in the West Bank, and accused it of failing to do enough to stop settler violence against Palestinians there.

Some British MPs have called on Mr Sunak to use the country's close relationship with Israel to press for change.

Shadow Foreign Office minister Bambos Charalambous said the Prime Minister should “take a clear stance on human rights, respect for international law, and commitments to democracy.”

“Yet reading the recently signed Roadmap for Israel-UK bilateral relations, I am deeply concerned that it dilutes long-standing UK positions held by successive governments in relation to international law,” she said.

“The road map makes no mention of supporting a two-state solution and it implies that settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories could be treated as part of Israel for the purposes of trade.”

Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan insisted the government wanted to see “a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living side-by-side with a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”

Mr Netanyahu is facing opposition from Israelis at home and abroad over his plan to shake up the judiciary.

Unveiled in January, days after the government took office, the proposals have been met with protests across Israel that have prompted the police to use water cannons.

Mr Netanyahu and his far-right, ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies say the proposed changes are necessary to diminish the powers of the Supreme Court, which they argue has become politicised.

But domestic critics view the plans as a threat to the country's democracy.

Israel's allies have also raised their concerns about the legal overhaul.

US President Joe Biden last weekend told Mr Netanyahu in a phone call that a “compromise” would the best option, and stressed the importance of “genuine checks and balances”, the White House said.

Mr Sunak's official spokesman on Wednesday suggested the Prime Minister had adopted a similar line.

Asked if Mr Sunak planned to raise concerns over the planned judicial reforms, his spokesman told reporters “we have raised concerns where appropriate.”

Updated: March 23, 2023, 6:57 PM