Benjamin Netanyahu was greeted by shouts of “shame” from pro-democracy protesters as he met Rishi Sunak in Downing Street amid a backlash over the Israeli prime minister’s judicial overhaul.
Protesters waving Israeli flags and placards stating their aim of “saving Israeli democracy” could be heard as the UK Prime Minister shook his counterpart’s hand outside No 10 on Friday morning.
Cries of “Busha”, or shame in Hebrew, could be heard from hundreds of demonstrators expressing their anger at Mr Netanyahu’s legislation that they say will drag the nation towards autocracy.
One sign branded Mr Netanyahu a “dictator on the run” as he faces domestic turmoil after his right-wing nationalist coalition approved a law that would protect him from being deemed unfit to rule.
Mr Netanyahu was forced to push back his departure time for the official trip to the UK as he sought to deal with mass protests in Israel which have seen major roads blocked and scuffles with police.
In Downing Street, as Mr Netanyahu welcomed Mr Sunak’s handshake with a smile, the shouts of demonstrators were easily heard from over the line of police officers guarding them in Whitehall.
Members of the crowd, speaking to the PA news agency, urged Mr Sunak to “stand up for democracy” in Israel.
Talli, an Israeli tech worker who has been living in London for six years, said she was protesting against Mr Netanyahu’s “judicial coup”.
“We want not just Rishi Sunak but the international community and leaders to apply pressure on Netanyahu – whether it’s financial deals, or anything at all – to back down on this coup.
“My family and friends all live in Israel and I’m worried about their futures.”
Chamutal Isaacs, a childbirth support worker who moved to London from Tel Aviv 32 years ago, said the overhaul would mean “an end to any sort of democracy in Israel”.
“I want Rishi Sunak to say to him he must lose his chair, he can’t continue to be the prime minister of Israel. He’s destroying democracy in Israel,” she said.
Mr Netanyahu’s office said he was expecting to focus on “the Iranian issue” with the UK Prime Minister, seeking to form “a united international front against Iran in order to stop its nuclear programme”.
“The two are also expected to discuss strengthening the strategic ties between Israel and the United Kingdom and increasing security and intelligence co-operation,” a statement said.
The Israeli leader will also meet Home Secretary Suella Braverman to discuss dealing with “global terrorism”, it added.
After a series of scandals involving wealthy associates, Mr Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He denies wrongdoing.
Critics say his government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, is dragging the nation towards authoritarianism by upending its system of checks and balances.
A smaller number of Palestinian protesters were also in Westminster as charities criticised Mr Sunak for seeking to foster closer ties with Israel.
Oxfam policy adviser Richard Stanforth said: “It is unconscionable that the Prime Minister will roll out the red carpet for Benjamin Netanyahu with the aim of deepening diplomatic ties, despite the Israeli government committing horrific human rights violations every day, seemingly with impunity.”
Amnesty International UK’s Kristyan Benedict accused the UK Government of “turning a blind eye to apartheid atrocities”.
“Netanyahu is more concerned with seeking legitimacy for his government rather than addressing its increasingly extremist policies, his occupation forces in the Palestinian territories killing civilians, stealing their land and building illegal new settlements,” he said.
“The UK and Israel’s rejection of this reality will not change the truth or illegality of the current situation. All it does is help entrench Israel’s racist system of apartheid against Palestinian people.”