British foreign secretary visits Israel to highlight close ties at precarious time for the country

JERUSALEM (AP) — The British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, arrived in Israel on Monday for a three-day visit to a country in turmoil, facing its biggest protest movement in history and heightened violence in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen hailed Cleverly's trip as important for deepening Israel's ties with Britain, which he said “are currently at their peak."

The British Foreign Office said Cleverly would use his first visit to the country to condemn Iran's support for regional militant groups sworn to Israel's destruction.

It said he also would stress Britain's continued support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel despite decades of failed talks. "I'll be making clear that all parties must take steps advance this cause,” Cleverly said in the statement.

Cleverly toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where he took part in a wreath-laying memorial ceremony. An eternal flame burns by a crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims to commemorate the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II.

As Cleverly met with Cohen, Israeli protesters fearful for the future of their country's democratic traditions flooded the streets ahead of a Supreme Court hearing on the far-right government's moves to overhaul the judiciary.

In the coming weeks, Israel's senior justices will decide whether to accept curbs on its powers and independence contained in the contentious judicial overhaul passed by parliament in July. The top court will hear petitions Tuesday against the first part of the measure.

Plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to weaken the Supreme Court have drawn outrage from all segments of Israeli society and exposed deep rifts in Israelis' view of their country's past and their vision for its future.

There was no mention of the social upheaval in the official read-outs from Cohen's meeting with Cleverly. Israel's foreign ministry said they discussed how to expand the so-called Abraham accords, the U.S.-brokered deals normalizing ties between Israel and long hostile Arab countries.

“We are working with our friends to expand the circle of peace and normalization,” Cohen said.

The foreign ministry said the two also conferred about Iran's fast accelerating nuclear program and the importance of halting Iranian support for regional proxies such as the Islamist militant group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Both groups have been behind an uptick in attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and in Israel this year that have claimed 31 lives so far.

Further fueling violence, the Israeli military's near-nightly raids into Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank have pushed the Palestinian death toll to 185, according to a tally by The Associated Press, the highest in some two decades. Nearly half of the Palestinians killed have been claimed as members by militant groups, but innocent bystanders and stone-throwing youths have also been killed.

Cleverly was set to meet with Netanyahu as well as Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh. He also planned to address an international security conference Tuesday about the challenges facing Isarel.