Tel Aviv, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was driven to the country’s main international airport to travel abroad on Thursday after a crowd of cars and protesters prevented him from getting there.
The demonstrations were part of more than two months of nationwide protests against Netanyahu and his government’s controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary. Protesters on Thursday made blocking Netanyahu’s airport route a centerpiece of their efforts – likely making the Israeli leader’s alternative travel plans a victory for the protest movement.
The helicopter ride, while avoiding traffic caused by the protests, could deepen Netanyahu’s reputation as out of touch with Israelis at a time when the economy is slowing and the country finds itself disconnected from government planning .
Israel’s premier, President Isaac Herzog, who has been trying to mediate a deal between Netanyahu’s allies and the opposition, appealed for a solution in a televised speech late Thursday.
“What is happening here is a tragedy,” he said as the protests continued till late evening.
Herzog, whose role as president is regarded as a unifying force and largely above politics, said the draft promoted by Netanyahu should be scrapped immediately. “It’s wrong. It’s destructive. It undermines our democratic foundations,” he said.
He insisted that weeks of behind-the-scenes talks had brought the sides closer to an agreement. “History will judge you. Now take responsibility,” he said.
Speaking later in Rome, Netanyahu praised Herzog’s efforts, saying, “We are all brothers.”
Thursday’s protests also disrupted a visit by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose schedule was rearranged to be closer to the airport.
Austin briefly reiterated President Joe Biden’s recent comments at a news conference on Israel’s domestic turmoil that “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary.” Are.”
He also said that Biden had stressed the need to “build a consensus for fundamental changes”.
Protesters’ “day of resistance to dictatorship” began at the country’s main international airport with crowds waving Israeli flags and blocking the road leading to the departure area with their cars.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked main squares and scuffled with police in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small group of paddleboards and kayaks tried to close a main sea shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa. Some protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think tank helping to drive judicial changes.
“Israel is on the verge of becoming an autocratic state. The current government is trying to destroy our democracy, and is actually destroying the country,” said Sevian Orr, a protester in Tel Aviv.
The furor over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. Beyond the protests, which have drawn thousands of Israelis to the streets and recently turned violent, opposition has grown from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against the plan’s devastating effects. The crackdown has affected Israel’s military, which is seeing unprecedented protests from its own ranks.
Later on Thursday, the army said it had suspended a pilot, identified in Israeli media as Colonel Gilad Peled, saying he had organized the pilots’ protest.
Israeli Air Force Chief Major General Tomer Bar said, “Creating a union to synchronize absence from service, although coming from good intentions, is forbidden.”
While some former top commanders have identified with the protesters, a group of 36 retired generals, including two former chiefs of staff, released a new letter saying the military must remain above politics.
“We demand that discussions or acts of disobedience be avoided,” the generals said.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a long political impasse, and his allies say the measures are aimed at reining in a court that has overstepped its authority. Critics say the overhaul would overturn the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and push Israel toward authoritarianism.
Critics also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, is motivated by personal grievances and may find a way to escape charges through an overhaul. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, and says the legal changes have nothing to do with his lawsuit.
Despite the demonstrations, Netanyahu and his allies have pledged to press ahead with a series of bills that would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review legislation and give coalition politicians control over judicial appointments.
The protesters’ main objective was to complicate the journey to the airport ahead of Netanyahu’s state visit to Rome on Thursday. Police handing out traffic tickets as protesters hold placards that read, “Dictator: Don’t Come Back!” Said that if they do not move, they will forcefully remove the protesters. There were no immediate reports of serious violence.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu, who had met with Austin prior to his departure, arrived at the airport in a police helicopter, bypassing the protesters. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment.
An airport spokeswoman said regular flights were not disrupted, although some passengers said they had to leave their cars behind a convoy of protesters and reach the terminal on foot.
Netanyahu told Italian daily La Repubblica in an interview ahead of his visit that the protests portrayed a vibrant democracy. But speaking to reporters before takeoff, he suggested protesters were seeking to oust him.
“The goal here is to topple a democratically elected government,” Netanyahu said. “We will not allow anyone to disrupt Israeli democracy.”
Police overseen by ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir vowed to quell the disturbances and said they had made some 15 arrests.
Protesters descended on Tel Aviv’s main highway, blocking afternoon traffic as mounted police and a water cannon truck hovered nearby. Police allowed the protesters to remain on the highway for more than an hour, but at some places removed them forcefully before the afternoon rush hour.
Red hoardings on the highway read, “Resistance to dictatorship is essential.”
Critics say Ben-Gvir, a key ally in Netanyahu’s coalition government, who has branded the protesters “anarchists” is trying to politicize the police.
Later on Thursday, Ben-Gvir removed Tel Aviv’s police chief because of his weak response to the protests, according to Israeli media. Police said Avichai Eshad is being reassigned.
Eshed declined to discuss the matter while speaking to reporters at the scene of a shooting attack late Thursday, when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a crowded street in central Tel Aviv, wounding three people and He was shot dead.
Hours after an Israeli army assault killed three Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank, the latest violence in a year-long wave of Israeli-Palestinian fighting that shows no sign of slowing down.
Thursday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, the country’s business hub and its liberal heartland, was nowhere near as large as last week’s, when police cracked down on otherwise peaceful protests, throwing stun grenades and scuffling with protesters. Those protests ended with Netanyahu’s wife Sara being escorted from a formal Tel Aviv hair salon where protesters had gathered after catching wind of her presence.
Netanyahu and his wife have gained notoriety for enjoying a lavish lifestyle and living lavishly on taxpayers and wealthy supporters.
Some pundits questioned why Netanyahu was visiting Italy for three days at a time of deep national crisis, suggesting that the couple were actually traveling to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Netanyahu’s schedule includes meeting with the Italian prime minister on Friday, but he did not return until Saturday night.
Austin’s visit to the Middle East on Thursday was also marred by protests. Their meetings were held at the airport and they did not travel to the Ministry of Defense, located in the central Tel Aviv area where the protests have been focused.
Associated Press reporters Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ilan Ben Zion and Isaac Sharf in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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