Netanyahu lands back in Israel at largely empty airport shortly ahead of Yom Kippur

On flight home, PM hails ‘many achievements’ on trip that saw Saudi peace hopes grow, promises more ‘good news’; was dogged by protesters on entire US trip but none seen at airport

A largely empty departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his delegation arrived back in Israel following a six-day visit to the US, September 24, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
A largely empty departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his delegation arrived back in Israel following a six-day visit to the US, September 24, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his delegation to the US landed back in Israel on Sunday afternoon and were received at a mainly empty Ben Gurion Airport, hours before Yom Kippur began in the early evening.

The premier’s flight arrived around 2 p.m. from New York, where he was sent off on Saturday night with protesters shouting “shame” at his convoy.

Netanyahu was hounded by protesters decrying his hardline coalition’s judicial overhaul push everywhere he went in the US, from California to New York, over the course of the six-day visit. When he spoke at the UN on Friday, thousands of anti-overhaul protesters rallied outside.

He’d also been greeted by protesters at Ben Gurion Airport before he departed for his much-awaited visit and sparked an outcry when accusing the protesters of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad, which he framed as being against Israel rather than against the actions of his hardline government. Some coalition members then issued statements against the demonstrators that echoed the premier’s sentiment.

But no protests awaited the premier upon his return Sunday afternoon just ahead of Yom Kippur, a 25-hour fast that will end Monday evening. The Jewish Day of Atonement is also marked by intense prayer by observant Jews, while secular Israelis take advantage of the deserted roads and highways, filling the streets in droves over the holiday.

On Saturday night, as Netanyahu’s convoy left his New York hotel for the airport, hundreds protested outside in the rain, shouting “shame” and “democracy” while police secured the area.

In another clip, protesters can be seen making obscene hand gestures at the convoy.

Aboard his Tel Aviv-bound flight Saturday night, after the end of Shabbat in New York, Netanyahu appeared in good spirits.

Speaking over the PA (public address) system on the plane, he summarized a “very successful trip,” telling delegation members that during his six-day visit to the US, he “met with about 20 heads of state across five continents” and secured “many achievements.”

The premier said he had “an excellent meeting with US President Joe Biden in which we discussed expanding the circle of peace, a continuation of the Abraham Accords that we [signed] three years ago.”

“I will continue to work hard to bring more achievements to our beloved country. More good news is coming,” he said.

The premier said his speech on Friday at the United Nations “was broadcast live not only on networks in the United States, but also in Saudi Arabia — and this is of course a blessing for the next year.”

Netanyahu devoted much of his UN address on Friday to a possible US-brokered normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, which he said would transform the Middle East. He did not mention his government’s legislative program to drastically weaken the judiciary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to use a red marker on a map of the ‘New Middle East,’ as he addressed the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In his own UN address Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan warned that regional security in the Middle East hinged on a “just, comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue” and made no mention of Israel or normalization efforts.

Netanyahu began his US visit with a sit-down with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in San Jose, California, followed by meetings in New York with Biden and other world leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

On Friday, he spoke before the UN General Assembly, sat down with American-Jewish leaders and gave a number of TV interviews in which he argued that he was trying to reach a compromise on his hardline coalition’s divisive bid to overhaul the judiciary.

Israeli-led protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the United Nations in New York City, September 22, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In Israel, tens of thousands attended nationwide rallies for the 38th straight week on Saturday night against the overhaul.

With Yom Kippur set to begin Sunday, the protesters echoed the theme of the Day of Atonement, and marched under the banner: “There is no forgiveness for the attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship.”

Demonstrators highlighted developments in recent days, including controversial remarks by Netanyahu against anti-overhaul protesters, and the premier’s continued refusal to commit to respecting a potential High Court judgment against overhaul legislation.

Some 100,000 people attended the main rally in Tel Aviv, according to Channel 13 news, which cited data from the Crowd Solutions firm. Following the rally at Kaplan Street, some protesters marched to the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana as they have done for several consecutive weeks.

Smaller protests were held at dozens of locations around the country, including in Jerusalem, Haifa, Rehovot, Eilat, Karkur, along the Gaza border and elsewhere. Beersheba’s main rally was canceled due to the upcoming fast day.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The protests come as the High Court is deliberating petitions against the reasonableness law, although it is not expected to rule for a number of weeks, if not months.

Earlier this month, an unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over a highly charged session in response to petitions against the law, enacted in July, which restricts judicial review of government decisions using the standard of reasonableness.

The law is the only major component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset so far, although legislation that gives the coalition almost complete control of the Judicial Selection Committee, and thus of appointing Israel’s judges, passed its first reading in March and could be passed at short notice at any time.

Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, the reasonableness law faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

A court ruling striking down a Basic Law would be unprecedented. If the coalition were not to abide by such a ruling, it would potentially cause a constitutional crisis.

In interviews with Fox News and CNN on Friday as his visit was coming to an end, Netanyahu again refused to commit to abide by the court’s ruling.

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