Protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul held demonstrations in and around Ben Gurion International Airport Wednesday afternoon, in an effort to disrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flight to Germany on a state visit.
But Netanyahu’s flight, which had originally been intended to take off at 5 p.m., was delayed until after 10 p.m. Netanyahu had two pressing matters to deal with in the Knesset in Jerusalem, including President Isaac Herzog’s upcoming unveiling of his alternative proposal for judicial reform, and a security incident in the north.
“Dictator on the run” and “Don’t come back,” read placards held up by demonstrators near the airport, where a convoy of cars bearing Israeli flags circulated between the terminals, making them difficult to access, an AFP correspondent reported.
Police said they handed out 30 traffic infringement notices to the protesters for obstructing roads at the airport.
Among the demonstrators were veterans of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando squad who rescued hostages in Entebbe in 1976 — the operation led by the premier’s brother Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed during the raid.
The veterans arrived in a black Mercedes, the same type of car that was used at Entebbe to draw away Ugandan soldiers from the terminal where the hostages were being held by making them believe their president, Idi Amin, had arrived.
Adam Kolman, who took part in the rescue mission, told the Kan public broadcaster that Netanyahu, a former commander in Sayeret Matkal himself, was once a good prime minister and soldier but had since “lost something.”
“You lost the connection with the center of Israel and made a connection with fascist, fanatical and extremist bodies who want to turn this country into a Halachic state, fascist and not a democracy. Bibi, come back,” Kolman said, using the prime minister’s nickname.
Netanyahu’s trip is set to center around meetings with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. On Wednesday it was announced that the trip had been shortened amid the political and security developments in Israel, and that the premier would return on Thursday night instead of the originally planned Friday morning.
According to the PMO, Netanyahu will stress the importance of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and will discuss “developments in the regional theater.”
Germany is a member of the P5+1 powers that signed on to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. Talks about returning to the breached agreement are stalled, as Western frustration with Tehran grows over military support for Russia’s war with Ukraine, and crackdowns on protestors.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the coalition’s sweeping overhaul of the judiciary. Last week Netanyahu was forced to take a helicopter to the airport in order to catch a flight for an official visit to Italy, as protesters in vehicles intentionally clogged the roads in the area.
Netanyahu is likely to hear thinly veiled warnings from Germany about the judicial reform. When Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was in Berlin in late February, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock shared her views as she stood alongside him.
“The values that link us include the protection of legal principles and the rule of law, like an independent judiciary,” she said. “We in Germany, the German government, are firmly convinced that a strong democracy needs an independent judiciary that can also review majority decisions.”
Demonstrators are rallying against the government’s plans to remake the judiciary and curtail the High Court’s ability to act as a check on executive power. Nationwide rallies in recent weeks have brought hundreds of thousands out into the streets, and further large protests are planned for the coming days.
Though protesters did not plan to disrupt train service, a notice on the airport website Wednesday advised travelers or others going to the airport to plan for extra time due to the expected disruptions and to follow police instructions regarding preferred access routes.
Channel 13 reported that some 60,000 people were expected to pass through the airport on Wednesday, evenly split between those arriving in the country and those departing.
Members of Israel’s large expat community in Berlin plan to be on hand to protest Netanyahu once he arrives in Berlin.
On Tuesday, some 1,000 Israeli writers, artists and intellectuals penned a letter to the German ambassador asking that Berlin cancel Netanyahu’s visit, accusing the prime minister of trying to turn the country into a “theocratic dictatorship.”
“In the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s dangerous and destructive leadership, and in light of a vast democratic civilian resistance against the destruction of state institutions by undemocratic law-making, we are asking that Germany and Great Britain swiftly announce to the defendant Netanyahu that his planned state visits to your countries are canceled,” read the letter. “If these visits go ahead as planned, a dark shadow will hang over them.”
The letter was signed by internationally acclaimed author David Grossman, novelist Dorit Rabinyan, Oscar-nominated director Uri Barbash and scores of academics, business figures and professionals.
It was also sent to the British ambassador to Israel. Netanyahu is reportedly planning on visiting the UK soon.
Ahead of Wednesday’s rally, Central District police commander Superintendent Avi Biton warned protesters that some routes near the airport used for emergency access would need to remain open, but indicated that cops would not stop people from demonstrating.
“The Israel Police sees the right to protest as a cornerstone of a democratic country and therefore we allow every citizen to exercise their basic right to demonstrate,” Biton said in a statement.
Police have been challenged in recent weeks trying to navigate between mostly peaceful protesters and demands from the government, including far-right police minister Itamar Ben Gvir, to crack down on so-called “anarchists.”
Ben Gvir met Tuesday with Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and other senior force officials for a situational assessment ahead of the Wednesday protests.
In the meeting, Ben Gvir reportedly grumbled that protesters were “permitted to slow down traffic” in last week’s rally at the airport.
“Anarchists harmed tens of thousands of travelers. My policy is to not permit the blocking of central roads; Ben Gurion [Airport] is also a central route. If there is anyone who doesn’t like that, then they can come and tell me,” Ben Gvir said, according to an unsourced Channel 12 report.
Police at the meeting reportedly told Ben Gvir they had learned from last week’s events that officers would be more “assertive,” handing out more fines to slow-moving drivers and impounding vehicles, according to the report.
Last week, Ben Gvir attempted to remove Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed after grousing that cops were treating protesters with kid gloves and allowing them to block roads and the Ayalon Highway. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara froze the move, saying she suspected it had been made under undue political influence.
Shabtai had approved Eshed’s demotion, apparently amid longstanding tensions with the top officer, but admitted on Saturday that taking the step at the current time had been an error.
Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court and give them control over the appointment of the nation’s judges.
They say the plan is a long-overdue measure to curb what they see as outsize influence by unelected judges. But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.
High-tech leaders, Nobel-winning economists and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by President Isaac Herzog to broker a compromise have not yielded fruit.
Agencies contributed to this report.