Mar 24, 2023 - World

U.K. PM tells Bibi he's concerned about plan to weaken Israel's Supreme Court

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday that he is concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to weaken the country's Supreme Court and other democratic institutions, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Why it matters: Sunak’s criticism, while mostly conveyed in private, adds to the growing international pressure Netanyahu is facing over his judicial overhaul plan and the anxiety among Israel’s key allies over its potential consequences for the country's democracy.

The big picture: Sunak is the fourth world leader to raise the issue directly with Netanyahu, after French President Emmanuel Macron several weeks ago, German Chancellor Scholz last week, and President Biden last Sunday.

Driving the news: Netanyahu arrived in London on Friday amid mass protests across Israel against the judicial overhaul and unprecedented warnings from the leaders of the military and security services about its implications.

  • Hundreds of Israelis and members of the British Jewish community demonstrated outside 10 Downing street against the judicial overhaul and raised signs calling Netanyahu a dictator.
  • Shortly before the meeting, the British Prime Minister’s office canceled the press statements both leaders were expected to give at the top of the meeting.

Behind the scenes: According to the two sources, Sunak was the one who raised the issue during the meeting. An Israeli official said the issue was only discussed briefly “for less than a minute to check the box," but the two sources said the conversation was longer.

  • Sunak told Netanyahu he is concerned about the negative implications of the legislation being discussed in Israel because the U.K.-Israel relationship is based on shared democratic values, the two sources said.
  • According to one of the sources, Sunak pointed to the U.K. backing of Israel at the UN, stressing such support is based on Israel being a liberal democracy.

What they're saying: A spokesperson for 10 Downing street said Sunak “stressed in his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including the proposed judicial reforms in Israel."

State of play: A day before Netanyahu arrived in the U.K., he gave a speech to the nation and doubled down on his intention to push for a final vote on parts of the judicial overhaul as early as next week.

  • In the speech, Netanyahu said will get personally involved in the judicial overhaul regardless of the conflict of interests agreement he signed that bars him from dealing with the judicial reform because he is standing trial.
  • Shortly after Netanyahu landed in London, the constitutional crisis in Israel officially erupted when the Israeli attorney general sent a letter to Netanyahu that stressed the speech violated the conflict of interests agreement.
  • The attorney general wrote the speech broke the law and stressed that any action he takes on the judicial reform from now on will be illegal.
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