Israelis protesting judicial reforms sought by the hard-right government converged on the country’s main airport on Thursday in a bid to disrupt a trip abroad by Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a visit by the US Defence Secretary, Reuters reports.
Netanyahu managed to greet Pentagon Chief, Lloyd Austin, at Ben Gurion Airport, however. And Austin, speaking later about ties with Israel, mentioned the importance of shared values, including ensuring an independent judiciary.
Officials kept mum on how Netanyahu had eluded flag-waving Israelis who, in convoys of cars, had clogged the access routes in an escalation of weeks-long demonstrations.
“We have a common agenda, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and preventing Iran’s aggression, and maintaining the security and prosperity of this region,” he told Austin in a video issued by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office.
In the footage, the veteran conservative Premier made no mention of his cat-and-mouse tactics against mostly centre-left protesters seeking to scupper proposed government curbs to the Supreme Court, which they cast as a danger to democracy.
Netanyahu – on trial on graft charges he denies – says the reform would restore balance between the branches of government.
Austin postponed and shortened his Israel leg of a regional tour due to the protests. Rather than travel to Israel’s Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, around which demonstrators were facing off with police, his meetings were relocated to an aerospace compound near Ben Gurion.
Though it has yet to be written into law, the judicial overhaul plan has hit the shekel and stirred concern abroad for Israel’s democratic health. Polls have found that most Israelis want it shelved or amended to satisfy a national consensus.
Austin, at a news conference later in the day with his Israeli counterpart, evoked comments by President Joe Biden, who has called for reaching a consensus on the issue in Israel.
“The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary,” he said.
Israeli media said Netanyahu had come by helicopter to Ben Gurion, from which he was due to depart later on Thursday to Rome to pursue a possible gas deal with Italy.
Images on social media showed Netanyahu aides, who turned up at the Airport several hours earlier, shopping in Duty Free. Outside, some travellers abandoned blocked vehicles and walked along the highway shoulder to Ben Gurion, luggage in tow.
“Nobody said don’t protest,” Minister for Police, Itamar Ben-Gvir, told reporters at the Airport, where he was coordinating the response to the demonstrations. “But it’s not okay, it’s not right, it’s not proper to ruin the lives of 70,000 people.”
He appeared to be referring to people stuck in traffic, as well as those travelling through Ben Gurion, whose spokesperson said the expected passenger volume for Thursday was 65,000.
In a message circulated over WhatsApp, protest organisers had urged air travellers to check in ahead of time: “We are trying to balance our desire to shake up the country with the necessity of enabling people to reach their destinations.”
Two law professors, Yuval Elbashan and Daniel Friedman, this week circulated a compromise proposal. Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and two ministers gave the draft a preliminary welcome. But leaders of the opposition said they would not countenance it unless Netanyahu suspends ratification votes.