Airlifted to airport after protesters block the roads, Netanyahu departs for Rome

On day of demonstrations against judicial overhaul, PM claims opposition pushing toward anarchy; meets US defense chief at airport; set to push PM Meloni to move embassy to capital

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart for Rome on March 9, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart for Rome on March 9, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed for Rome on Thursday afternoon for a diplomatic visit, after being helicoptered to Ben Gurion Airport because protesters against the government created huge traffic jams to prevent him from being driven there.

Organizers of protests against the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms encouraged demonstrators to block the roads around Ben Gurion Airport. For hours ahead of his flight, large convoys of vehicles blocked the entrance to the airport.

Netanyahu flew to the airport by helicopter, instead of traveling by convoy on the highway from Jerusalem. He met there with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who had earlier scrapped plans to travel to Tel Aviv for their talks because of the protests.

Netanyahu’s flight to Rome departed later than planned, with the Prime Minister’s Office chalking up the delay to his meeting with Austin.

In remarks before boarding his plane, his wife Sara at his side, Netanyahu castigated the political leadership of the campaign against his judicial overhaul moves.

“All of our efforts at dialogue have been met with total refusal from the opposition and attempts to drag the country into anarchy,” he said.

Protesters block the entrance roads at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

“We won’t let anyone disrupt Israel’s democracy and cancel the decision of the majority in Israel, as expressed in the recent elections,” Netanyahu said.

In comments at a later press conference, Austin said the relationship between the US and Israel is “rooted in the shared values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

Austin said Israel and the US “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,” he added.

Firing back, opposition leader Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of lying about making efforts to hold a dialogue on the government’s judicial shakeup plans, while swiping at him over the trip to Rome.

“Even on the steps of the plane, on his way to a wasteful and unnecessary weekend on the country’s dime, Netanyahu cannot stop lying,” Lapid said.

“The government did not agree to any dialogue attempt, and it is continuing to push through legislation that will turn us into a messianic, extremist and undemocratic country,” Lapid added. “The only anarchists in this story are senior ministers in the government who are trying to set the country alight.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart for Rome on March 9, 2023 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

Netanyahu will meet in Rome with his Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni. He and his wife Sara will meet with Roman Jewish leaders at the Jewish Museum of Rome in the evening.

On Friday morning, Netanyahu will sit with Italian business leaders at the Economy Ministry, then hold a 45-minute meeting over lunch with Meloni at the Chigi Palace, her official residence.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni speaks during a press conference after meeting with The Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte at Chigi Palace government offices in Rome, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

During their meeting, Netanyahu is expected to push Italy’s hard-right leader to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica published Thursday, he said, “It is time for Rome to recognize Jerusalem has been the ancestral capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.”

There have been signs recently that Rome is moving toward Israel. During the December United Nations General Assembly vote requesting the International Court of Justice weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Italy voted against the measure, joining Israel, the US, and 23 other nations.

The visit will not deal with Israel-Vatican ties, though Israel’s envoy to the Holy See Rafi Schotz will be among the officials greeting Netanyahu on the tarmac.

As he did during his February flight to Paris, Netanyahu — and his dozens of aides and security personnel — is staying abroad over Shabbat, and will land back in Israel early Sunday morning.

Protesters block entrance to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Before taking off, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met Austin next to the airport. The three were meant to meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, but the nationwide protests forced the government to move the meeting to Israel Aerospace Industries offices near the airport. Austin arrived from Egypt, after stops in Jordan and Iraq this week.

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.”

A statement 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 secretary emphasized the importance of implementing commitments made by Israeli and Palestinian senior officials in Aqaba, Jordan on February 26, and urged immediate steps to de-escalate violence and work towards a just and lasting peace,” the statement added. “Secretary Austin called for a halt in unilateral actions that undermine the enduring goal of two states with Palestinians and Israelis enjoying equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, justice, and dignity.”

Austin had been slated to arrive in Israel Wednesday night, but shortened his trip because of the civil unrest in the country.

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)

In remarks to reporters before takeoff, Netanyahu said his meeting with Austin was “important and comprehensive,” adding that he deeply appreciated US President Joe Biden’s and Austin’s commitment to Israel’s security.

“If there is anyone in Tehran who thinks that they can progress toward a nuclear bomb, they are mistaken,” Netanyahu said.

He said he saw a shift in the US and Western attitude to Iran in recent months to a more aggressive stance that needs to intensify further, saying that this will be at the center of his conversations in Rome and other European capitals.

On Wednesday evening, dozens of people protested outside the homes of the pilots who were to fly Netanyahu to Rome, imploring them to follow the example of other El Al crews who reportedly refused the job in protest of the government’s plan to dramatically alter the judiciary.

The trip previously faced setbacks when El Al was initially unable to find a crew to staff the prime minister’s flight — an issue blamed on crew shortages but that may have also been affected by growing public anger at the government as it pushed forward with efforts to weaken the justice system.

The Israel Airports Authority called on travelers flying out of the country Thursday to arrive early at Ben Gurion Airport, in anticipation of the disruptions.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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