Top military chief Lloyd Austin lands in Tel Aviv as demonstrations over the government’s controversial judicial reforms escalate at Israel’s main airport.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has arrived in Israel amid a wave of protests against the government’s reform plans, with thousands calling for a “day of resistance against the dictatorship”.
Austin, who is on a regional tour, landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday, where hundreds of protesters gathered. He was greeted on the tarmac by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, the Pentagon chief’s visit came as Israeli protesters intensified their opposition to a controversial government proposal to reform the judiciary.
Protesters waving Israeli flags descended on the country’s international airport and blocked the main road leading to the departure area with their cars. The disruption caused traffic to snap and it was not clear if or how Netanyahu would reach the airport.
Police issued traffic fines as protesters held signs reading “Dictator: Don’t come back”. Security officers could be seen shoving and shoving protesters outside the facility.
Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported that Netanyahu would fly to the airport by helicopter and bypass the protesters. The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
“Israel is about to become an autocratic country. The current government is trying to destroy our democracy and actually destroy the country,” said Savion Or, a protester in Tel Aviv.
Police, overseen by ultra-nationalist national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, vowed to prevent disturbances and said they had already made arrests when the protests began.
Police on horseback were stationed in central Tel Aviv, where protesters marched and a water cannon truck parked nearby. Red billboards adorning the city’s main highway read: “resistance to dictatorship is mandatory”.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked key intersections in the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small fleet of paddleboards and kayaks attempted to close a shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa.
Some protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think tank that helped lead the judicial changes.
The uproar over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises.
Aside from the protests, which have drawn tens of thousands to the streets and recently turned violent, opposition has emerged from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against what they say will be the disastrous consequences of the plan.
The breach has not spared the Israeli army, which is facing unprecedented resistance from within its own ranks.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a protracted political deadlock, and his allies say the measures are intended to rein in a court that has overstepped its authority.
“The protests show how solid our democracy is,” Netanyahu told Italian daily La Repubblica ahead of a trip to Rome. “Reform is needed. The judiciary must be independent, not omnipotent.”
Critics say the overhaul will disrupt the delicate system of checks and balances and slide Israel into authoritarianism. Critics also say that Netanyahu, on trial for corruption, is driven by personal grievances and that the overhaul could help him find an escape route from the indictment.
He denies wrongdoing and says the law changes have nothing to do with his trial. Netanyahu and his allies have pledged to push forward with a series of bills that would strip the Supreme Court’s ability to review legislation and give coalition politicians control over judicial appointments.
An attempt by Israel’s ceremonial president to defuse the crisis through an alternative legal reform has so far failed.