Israelis protesting judicial reforms sought by the right-wing 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 U.S. defense secretary.
Defying a heavy police deployment, convoys of cars flying blue-and-white national flags packed the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway and streamed toward Ben Gurion Airport’s main terminal.
A second terminal was unaffected, a Reuters witness said.
Some local media said Netanyahu and his retinue sidestepped the traffic jams by coming to the airport in the early morning. Others speculated that he might reach Ben Gurion — usually a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem — by military helicopter instead.
Netanyahu’s spokespeople did not disclose the whereabouts of the prime minister, who was due to leave for a two-day visit to Rome in the afternoon after a hastily organized welcome for Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, who landed at the airport at noon.
Images on social media showed Netanyahu aides shopping in Duty Free. Outside, some travelers abandoned blocked vehicles and walked along the highway shoulder to Ben Gurion, luggage in tow.
Protest organizers called for escalated disruptions throughout the country in what they dubbed “A Day of Resistance” against reforms that they fear would subordinate Israel‘s Supreme Court to the executive and foster corruption.
Netanyahu — who is on trial on graft charges he denies — argues that curbing the judiciary would restore the balance between the branches of government.
“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 traveling through Ben Gurion, whose spokesperson said the expected passenger volume for Thursday was 65,000.
In a message circulated over WhatsApp, protest organizers had urged air travelers 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.”
Austin, who is on a regional tour, had been due to arrive on Wednesday. But he postponed, and relocated meetings to a venue near Ben Gurion, given concerns that the demonstrations could make it difficult to reach the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv.
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.
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.
In Jerusalem, a group of protesters used sandbags and barbed wire to barricade the offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think-tank that has advocated the government reforms.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters