Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel on Thursday was overshadowed by the massive protests in the streets, which demonstrators termed the “Day of Resistance to Dictatorship.” Austin had planned to visit the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, but instead was trapped at Ben Gurion Airport, where he met with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, former military commander of the Southern Command who prosecuted Operation Cast Lead against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009.
Further embarrassment derived from Netanyahu having to fly out to Ben Gurion Airport on a helicopter after repeated delays, because he could not have hoped to make the trip overland.
At a joint press conference with Gallant, Secretary Austin’s remarks were mostly boilerplate expressions of friendship and support for Israel.
On two occasions, however, Austin commented indirectly on the recent mob violence toward Palestinians and on the massive street protests that had prevented him from reaching the Defense Ministry building and on the actions and statements of Israel’s extremist government. He said,
- “And our bond is rooted in far more than just shared interests. It’s rooted in the shared values of democracy and freedom and the rule of law, and those values remain essential. As President Biden has said, “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.” And the President also noted that “building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
MSNBC: “Defense Secretary Austin voices support for Israeli protests during trip to Tel Aviv”
That statement is hard to interpret except as a fairly direct American intervention in internal Israel affairs. The praise for “strong institutions” and “checks and balances” and “an independent judiciary” refers to the Israeli Supreme Court, which Netanyahu wants to weaken by allowing parliament to override its rulings with a simple majority.
Austin’s language about “building consensus for fundamental changes” is a slam at Netanyahu’s determination to bulldoze his measures through parliament regardless of what most Israelis think. Austin warned Netanyahu that such radical changes, if rushed through parliament in the teeth of popular opposition, will anyway not long survive.
Elsewhere in his speech, Austin slammed the pogrom carried out by Israeli squatters on the small town of Huwwara a week and a half ago:
- “the United States also remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric. And we’re especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians. So we’ll continue to oppose actions that could push a two-state solution further out of reach.”
Since the new Netanyahu government, with flame-throwing ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) and Itamar Ben-Gvir (Jewish Power), is all about settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric, and supporting violent squatters in their attacks on Palestinians, Austin was frontally attacking the pillars of the current Netanyahu regime.
For Austin to even mention the squatters’ violence against Palestinians violates a basic tenet of Israeli propaganda, which is that it is always the Palestinians who are angry and violent, because they are (the Israeli publicists put out) an intrinsically terrorist people. For the American secretary of defense to identify Israeli squatters as the source of the violence is nearly unheard of.
Despite all the US happy talk about knee-jerk support for Israel, the more important statements here are the scolding Austin directed toward the Netanyahu government for its violation of basic humanitarian law.