In Israel, Austin says US disturbed by W. Bank violence, urges consensus on overhaul

Defense secretary meets with Netanyahu and Gallant at airport, as anti-government protesters block major highways

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at Ben Gurion Airport on March 9, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at Ben Gurion Airport on March 9, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin near Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday, where the Pentagon chief asked that Jerusalem take steps to de-escalate West Bank violence amid spiraling tensions.

Netanyahu was forced to fly by helicopter to the meeting, originally slated to take place at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, due to widespread protests triggered by his government’s judicial overhaul plans that saw demonstrators block major highways surrounding the airport as well as other major thoroughfares.

After meeting with Austin, the premier and his wife Sara flew to Rome, where he will meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the city’s Jewish community, before spending the weekend in Italy.

Speaking later at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters, which is adjacent to the airport, Austin told reporters that “the United States remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric.”

“We’re especially disturbed by violence from settlers against Palestinians,” said Austin after meeting separately with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant.

Austin also echoed other Biden administration officials by encouraging the government to find a broad consensus for its divisive judicial revamp.

The relationship between the US and Israel is “rooted in the shared values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law,” he said, noting that the countries “are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and a strong judiciary.”

“An independent judicial system is an important part of democracy. A broad consensus must be achieved for fundamental changes in the judicial system in order for them to remain sustainable,” Austin told reporters.

Speaking before Austin, Gallant said that “Israel seeks stability and security” in the West Bank and is also working to improve “the well-being of the Palestinian people.”

“But this should never come at the expense of the life of a single citizen of Israel,” Gallant said. “In the face of terrorism, we will be determined, concise, and powerful.”

Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant (R) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin deliver a statement to the press at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) headquarters near the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The Pentagon chief called on the Palestinian Authority to “combat terrorism” and “condemn incitement,” before reiterating Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks.

Earlier Thursday, three Palestinian Islamic Jihad gunmen were shot dead by Israeli forces in the northern West Bank during an attempted arrest raid. Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high for the past year, with the IDF conducting near-nightly raids in the West Bank amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin near Ben Gurion Airport, March 9, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

At the start of his meeting with Austin, Netanyahu said the US and Israel “have a shared agenda — to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, to stop Iranian aggression, to protect regional security and prosperity, and to expand the circle of peace.”

Gallant, speaking to reporters, emphasized that Israel was “prepared for every course of action” required to deal with the Iranian threat. “I repeat and emphasize, we must be prepared, for every course of action.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with their delegations, meet at Ben Gurion Airport on March 9, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

A readout from the Pentagon said Austin and Netanyahu discussed US-Israel ties, including the administration’s “ironclad commitment” to the Jewish state’s security and “the threats posed by Iran.”

“They agreed to increase cooperation to confront Iran,” the statement said. “Secretary Austin reaffirmed the US commitment to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. The leaders also discussed regional security challenges and opportunities to expand Israel’s regional partnerships.”

Austin noted “Russia’s expanding military cooperation with Iran in Ukraine,” warning of potential “negative implications” for the Middle East if Moscow supplies Tehran with weaponry in return.

The US defense secretary was due to return stateside after his brief stop in Israel, which followed visits to Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt.

Emanuel Fabian and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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