Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to be airlifted on Thursday to the country’s main international airport for an official 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 had made blocking Netanyahu’s route to the airport a centerpiece of their intensifying efforts to oppose the legal changes, and the optics of the Israeli leader having to make alternate travel plans were a win for the protest movement.
The helicopter ride, far from the snarling traffic triggered by the protest, was also sure to deepen Netanyahu’s reputation as being out of touch with Israelis at a time when the country finds itself torn apart over the government plan and the economy is slowing.
Thursday’s disruptions also took a toll on visiting U.S. Secretary of State Lloyd Austin, whose schedule was rearranged to keep his engagements close to the airport.
The protesters, launching a “day of resistance to dictatorship,” descended on the country’s main international airport waving Israeli flags, 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 not spared Israel’s military, which is seeing unprecedented opposition from within its own ranks.
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.
Demonstrations were underway across the country as 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. An attempt by Israel’s ceremonial president to defuse the crisis through an alternative legal reform has so far been unsuccessful.
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 was meeting 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.
In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica ahead of the trip, Netanyahu played down the protests and vowed to push ahead with his program.
“The protests show how solid our democracy is,” he said. “A reform is necessary. The judiciary must be independent, not omnipotent.”
The police, overseen by ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, have pledged to prevent the disturbances and said they had made 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 began to clear 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.
“We support freedom of expression but not anarchy,” Ben-Gvir told reporters while touring the airport.
Thursday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, the country’s business center and its liberal heartland, was not nearly as large as the 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 media 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 being affected by the protests. An Israeli official said Austin’s meetings were moved to a factory near the airport due to the disruptions. The protest movement has focused on central Tel Aviv, near the Defense Ministry. The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.
Earlier Thursday, protesting military reservists barricaded the Jerusalem offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think tank that has helped craft the overhaul, with barbed wire and sandbags, and hung a banner outside reading “Kohelet is tearing Israel apart.”
Several dozen people, including two former Navy chiefs, gathered in the waters off Haifa in kayaks, sailboats and on stand-up paddleboards in a bid to block the city’s shipping lane.