Israeli protests disrupt visit by US defense secretary
JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was forced to change the schedule of a planned visit to Israel due to anti-government protests that are expected to paralyze traffic across the country, U.S. and Israeli officials said Wednesday.
Austin was scheduled to arrive early Thursday from Egypt for a one-day visit to Israel, a close American ally. But instead of meeting Israeli officials in Jerusalem or at the Defense Ministry in central Tel Aviv, his meetings will be held at a factory near Israel’s international airport.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the country’s judiciary. More demonstrations are planned Thursday, with roads expected to be blocked and authorities warning of possible disruptions at the airport.
Netanyahu’s allies say the legal overhaul is needed to curb the influence of unelected judges. His opponents say the changes will concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and push the country toward authoritarian rule. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, is motivated by a personal grudge and has a conflict of interest.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the change in location had come at the request of the Israeli Defense Ministry and referred further questions to Israel.
A senior U.S. defense official said Israeli officials have expressed concerns about planned protests near the Israeli Defense Ministry — which is located near the epicenter of the protests. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly, said the U.S. supports the right to hold nonviolent protests and that Austin is prepared to meet his Israeli hosts wherever they prefer.
An Israeli official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, confirmed the decision.
Austin is scheduled to meet Netanyahu and his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
AP correspondent Tara Copp reported from Washington.