US Defence Secretary Israel trip to be cut short due to protests

Lloyd Austin visiting Israel as demonstrations continue against proposed plan to overhaul court system and violence surges in the West Bank

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Defence Minister Mohamed Zaki meet US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his delegation at the presidential palace in Cairo. AFP
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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin's meetings with Israeli leaders have changed location and his arrival has been slightly delayed due to protests in the country, a US official said on Wednesday.

The change in the Thursday meetings was made at the request of the Israeli government, the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They were to have taken place at Israel's Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, The Financial Times cited Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder as saying, but instead will occur nearer the airport.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Israeli cities for the ninth straight week on Saturday to protest against a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the country's court system.

The marches have attracted huge crowds on a weekly basis since early January, when Mr Netanyahu's government floated legislation that would limit Supreme Court powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, while giving lawmakers decisive powers in appointing judges.

The intensity of the protests has heightened since March 1, when Israeli police fired stun grenades and scuffles broke out in Tel Aviv during a nationwide “day of disruption”.

Mr Austin has been engaged a whistle-stop tour of the Middle East this week, last meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi on Wednesday in Cairo.

The pair discussed the “strategic partnership” between their two countries and improving joint military and security co-operation, as well as surging violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank.

“The President emphasised the importance of intensifying international efforts to bring about calm in Palestinian territories,” a presidential statement read. Israel must stop escalations and unilateral moves, he told Mr Austin.

Mr Austin was in Cairo on the latest stop of a Middle East tour that has already taken him to Jordan and Iraq. His meeting with Mr El Sisi, a former army general in office since 2014, took place at his suburban presidential palace a 10-minute drive away from the airport.

Egypt and the US have been close allies since the late 1970s, with Cairo receiving billions of dollars in US military and economic aid.

Currently, Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid annually, making it one of the world’s largest recipients of such assistance.

The two countries have, over the years, also forged close military counter-terrorism co-operation. They regularly hold joint war games, while Egypt routinely allows the US warplanes to fly through its airspace and grants American warships priority when sailing through the Suez Canal.

“The US-Egypt defence partnership is an essential pillar of our commitment to this region,” Mr Austin wrote on Twitter upon landing in Cairo.

“I'm here to strengthen our co-ordination on key issues and to pursue opportunities to deepen our long-standing bilateral partnership with Egypt.”

Egypt has also played a key role in brokering numerous truces between Israel, Washington’s closest Middle East ally, and the militant Palestinian group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip.

Mr Austin's trip comes as violence has surged across the occupied West Bank to its highest levels in years. He will fly to Israel later on Wednesday.

His visit to Baghdad on Tuesday was previously unannounced and came two days before the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Updated: March 09, 2023, 4:36 AM