US defence secretary curtails Israel trip, citing security concerns
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has had to curtail his trip to Israel because of mass protests planned against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul.
Israeli officials are concerned they will not be able to secure Austin’s route from the airport to Israel’s defence ministry, as protesters plan a “national day of resistance” on Thursday.
Austin, who was slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, will arrive on Thursday morning instead, according to a schedule provided by the Israeli government.
Austin will not travel to Israel’s defence ministry in Tel Aviv but will meet his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant at the Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters, next to Ben Gurion Airport. He is also expected to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the airport.
The switch is notable because senior US officials are generally able to navigate tense environments.
General Mark Milley, US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, made a rare trip to an undisclosed US base in the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria on Saturday. Austin himself recently visited Baghdad.
President Joe Biden’s secret trip to Ukraine by train in February has been the most high-profile visit by far this year. Biden’s tour of Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as air-raid sirens wailed in the background was seen as a sign of the US’s unflagging commitment to Ukraine.
The change in Austin’s visit also underscores tensions tearing at Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies are facing pushback over a plan that would give parliament the power to override Supreme Court decisions through a simple majority vote and de facto control over court nominees.
Hundreds of senior Israeli military officers, including those from intelligence and the air force, have threatened not to show up for duty if the new judicial law passes.
Those protests coincide with raging violence in the occupied West Bank. Last month, rampaging settlers carried out what one Israeli general deemed a “pogrom” in the town of Huwwara.
Israel’s ultranationalist finance minister later said Israel should “wipe out” the village as it was still smouldering in the wake of the attacks.
Israeli forces have killed at least 71 Palestinians since January this year - which corresponds to a rate of more than one killing every day.
It's the bloodiest start of a year since 2000, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
At least 13 Israelis were killed by Palestinians in the same period.
Analysts and diplomats fear more deadly escalations next month when Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holidays overlap.
CIA director William Burns recently said that current tensions in the West Bank bear an "unhappy resemblance" to the Second Intifada.
The threat of an uncontrollable outbreak of violence has prompted Jordan, Egypt, and the US to initiate de-escalation efforts in recent months, but it remains unclear if they will be able to contain the violence amid continuing Israeli attacks.