Mar 9, 2023 - World

Pentagon chief's Israel trip overshadowed by protests over Bibi's judicial plan

Israelis protesting against the government's controversial judicial reform bill block the main road leading to the departures area of Ben Gurion Airport on March 9. Photo: Amad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Lloyd Austin traveled to Israel on Thursday for talks focused on Iran and the escalation in the occupied West Bank, but the secretary of defense also found himself in the middle of the domestic turmoil over the future of Israel’s democracy, which has engulfed the country in recent weeks.

Why it matters: The Israeli right-wing government’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions has created an unprecedented constitutional crisis in Israel, with growing fears that the confrontation between the government and the opposition will escalate into violence and chaos.

  • The shockwaves of the crisis have reached the Israeli military, with hundreds of reserve air force pilots, members of special forces units, and military intelligence officers saying they would not serve if the plan is implemented. Such a scenario could significantly hamper the IDF’s operational capabilities.

Driving the news: Austin was supposed to arrive in Israel on Wednesday but he cut his trip short at the request of Israeli officials after anti-government protesters announced they planned to block roads across Israel in a “day of resistance" over the judicial overhaul plan.

  • When Austin landed in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning, thousands of Israelis had already been demonstrating across the country, with the airport being a key flashpoint.
  • Hundreds of protesters gathered at and near the airport, with some blocking roads leading to the terminals with their cars. Some flights were delayed and it took several hours before the area was cleared.
  • Because of the protests, Austin's meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Yoav Galant took place in the VIP room of Israeli Air Industries headquarters at the area of the airport.
Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant (R) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin deliver a statement to the press at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) headquarters near the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2023.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant deliver a statement to the press on March 9. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

Netanyahu, who wanted to avoid the protesters who blocked the roads to the airport, used a helicopter to fly there from Jerusalem. The Shin Bet, which is in charge of Netanyahu’s security, even created a diversion so that protesters wouldn't block the helipad.

  • While a military helicopter was sent to a landing area on one side of Jerusalem and attracted the attention of the protesters and the media, a police helicopter landed on the other side of the city and picked up Netanyahu and flew to the airport, where he was also scheduled to fly from later in the day for a trip to Rome.
  • As Austin met with Netanyahu, large televisions outside the meeting room showed live coverage of the protests across the country. Two Israeli and U.S. officials said the issue didn't come up in Austin’s meetings with Netanyahu or Galant.

Yes, but: In the prepared remarks at the beginning of his press conference with Galant, Austin quoted President Biden, saying "an independent judiciary" is a key part of every democracy.

  • "Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained," Austin said, continuing to quote comments Biden made to the New York Times last month.
  • When asked about the crisis inside the Israeli military over the judicial plan, Austin deferred to Galant, who dodged the question.

The big picture: During his meeting with Netanyahu, Austin urged the prime minister to take immediate steps to de-escalate violence in the occupied West Bank, the Pentagon said.

  • Austin emphasized the importance of implementing commitments made by Israel and the Palestinians at the Aqaba summit last week and called for a halt to unilateral actions that undermine the two-state solution, according to a Pentagon statement.
  • Austin said he discussed with Netanyahu and Galant the Iranian threat in the region and stressed the U.S. commitment to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
  • Galant said at the press conference that in near future “pressing decisions will have to be made” regarding Iran and stressed the Israeli military is preparing for every scenario. “All options are on the table," Galant said.
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