TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to be airlifted Thursday to the country’s main international airport for an overseas trip after throngs of cars and protesters prevented him from driving there.
The demonstrations were part of nationwide protests underway for more than two months against Netanyahu and his government’s contentious plan to overhaul the judiciary. Demonstrators made blocking Netanyahu’s airport route Thursday a centerpiece of their efforts — the optics of the Israeli leader having to make alternate travel plans a win for the protest movement.
The helicopter ride, while avoiding snarling traffic triggered by the protest, could deepen Netanyahu’s reputation as being out of touch with Israelis at a time when the economy is slowing and the country finds itself torn apart over the government’s plan.
Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, who has been trying to mediate a compromise 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 protests continued late into the evening.
Herzog, whose role as president is supposed to be as a unifying force and largely above politics, said the draft promoted by Netanyahu should be dropped immediately. “It is wrong. It is 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. Take responsibility, now,” he said.
Speaking later in Rome, Netanyahu appeared to praise Herzog’s efforts, saying “We are all brothers.”
Thursday’s protests also disrupted a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose schedule was rearranged to keep his engagements close to the airport.
Austin briefly waded into Israel’s domestic turmoil, repeating at a news conference President Joe Biden’s recent comments that the “genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances and on an independent judiciary.”
He also noted Biden had stressed the need for “building consensus for fundamental changes.”
The protesters “day of resistance to dictatorship” started with crowds descending on the country’s main international airport waving Israeli flags and blocking the road leading to the departures area with their cars.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked main intersections and scuffled with police in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small flotilla of paddleboards and kayaks tried to close off a main maritime shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa. Some protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think tank helping to spearhead the judicial changes.
“Israel is on the verge of becoming an autocratic country. The current government is trying to destroy our democracy, and actually destroy the country,” said Savion Or, a protester in Tel Aviv.
The uproar over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. Beyond the protests, which have drawn tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets and recently became violent, opposition has surged from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against what they say will be the ruinous effects of the plan. The rift has affected Israel’s military, which is seeing unprecedented opposition from within its own ranks.
Later Thursday, the military said it suspended a pilot, identified in Israeli media as Col. Gilad Peled, until further notice, saying he had organized a pilots’ protest.
“Unionizing to synchronize absence from service, though coming from good intentions, is forbidden,” said Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, Israel’s air force chief.
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 army must remain above politics.
“We demand that discussion or acts of insubordination be avoided,” said the generals.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a protracted political stalemate, and his allies say the measures aim to rein in a court that has overstepped its authority. Critics say the overhaul will upset the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and slide Israel toward authoritarianism.
Critics also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, is driven by personal grievances and that he could find an escape route from the charges through the overhaul. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, and says the legal changes have nothing to do with his trial.
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 Thursday was to complicate Netanyahu’s journey to the airport ahead of a state visit to Rome. Police, handing out traffic tickets as protesters held signs reading, “dictator: don’t come back!” said they would clear the demonstrators by force if they did not move. There were no immediate reports of serious violence.
Netanyahu, who met Austin before his departure, arrived to the airport in a police helicopter, circumventing the protesters, Israeli media reported. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment.
Regular flights were not interrupted, an airport spokeswoman said, although some travelers said they had to leave their cars behind the protesters’ convoy and reach the terminal by foot.
Netanyahu told the Italian daily La Repubblica in an interview before his trip that the protests illustrated a vibrant democracy. But speaking to reporters before takeoff, he suggested the protesters were looking to oust him.
“The goal here is to topple a government that was elected democratically,” Netanyahu said. “We won’t let anyone disrupt Israeli democracy.”
The police, overseen by ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, pledged to prevent the disturbances and said they had made some 15 arrests.
Protesters descended onto Tel Aviv’s main highway, blocking midday traffic as mounted police and a water cannon truck hovered nearby. Police allowed the protesters to remain on the highway for over an hour but cleared it in some places by force ahead of afternoon rush hour.
Red billboards festooning the highway read, “resistance to dictatorship is mandatory.”
Critics say Ben-Gvir, a key ally in Netanyahu’s coalition government who has dubbed the protesters “anarchists”, is trying to politicize the police.
Later Thursday, Ben-Gvir removed Tel Aviv’s police chief over what he felt was a weak response to the protests, according to Israeli media. Police said Avichai Eshed was 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 before he was shot and killed.
The shooting came hours after an Israeli military raid killed three Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank, the latest violence in a year-long wave of Israel-Palestinian fighting that shows no signs of slowing.
Thursday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, the country’s business center and its liberal heartland, was not nearly as large as one last week, when police cracked down on what had otherwise been peaceful protests, lobbing stun grenades and scuffling with demonstrators. Those protests ended with Netanyahu’s wife Sara being extracted from a ritzy Tel Aviv hair salon where demonstrators had gathered after catching wind of her presence.
Netanyahu and his wife have gained notoriety for enjoying lavish lifestyles and living off the largesse of taxpayers and wealthy supporters.
Some pundits questioned why Netanyahu was flying to Italy for three days at a time of deep national crisis, suggesting the couple were actually traveling to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Netanyahu’s schedule includes a meeting with Italy’s prime minister on Friday, but he does not return until Saturday night.
Thursday’s visit by Austin, who is on a Mideast tour, was also affected by the protests. His meetings were held at the airport and he did not travel to the Defense Ministry, located in the central Tel Aviv area where protests have been focused.
Associated Press reporters Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ilan Ben Zion and Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem contributed to this report.