Pentagon chief visits Israel amid West Bank violence, anti-Netanyahu protests By Reuters
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lands in Cairo, Egypt March 8, 2023. REUTERS/Idrees Ali/File Photo
By Idrees Ali
BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel (Reuters) – Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin on Thursday urged Israeli leaders to take steps to reduce tensions in the occupied West Bank amid growing fears in Washington that the situation could distract allies of their efforts to counter Iran.
Austin, who is on a regional tour, landed at Ben Gurion Airport for a visit that was hastily postponed due to an upsurge in street protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the justice system. .
Hours earlier, Israeli forces had killed three Islamic Jihad gunmen in the West Bank, among territories that have seen violence simmer amid the Palestinians’ long-stalled goal of statehood.
“The United States (remains) strongly opposed to any act that could trigger further insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric,” Austin told reporters after meeting with Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant.
“We are particularly disturbed by settler violence against Palestinians,” Austin said, adding that his discussions were candid and frank.
He met Netanyahu earlier at the airport for more than an hour and a Pentagon readout of the meeting said Austin called for “immediate action to de-escalate violence and work towards a just and lasting peace.”
The United States is Israel’s closest ally, and both countries are increasingly concerned about Iran’s military activities in the region and its nuclear program – which Tehran says is entirely focused on producing nuclear weapons. electricity and other peaceful projects.
Austin’s talks with Gallant focused in part on Iran, but growing violence in the West Bank cast a shadow over the meeting.
Gallant reiterated Israel’s longstanding position that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons and that Israel must “be prepared for all actions.”
But a senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Israel’s preoccupation with the West Bank “harms our ability to focus on what That is the strategic threat right now, that is Iran’s dangerous nuclear advances and continued regional and global aggression.
Austin was originally scheduled to arrive Wednesday and spend the night in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s Defense Ministry is based. But those plans were changed due to concerns over traffic disruptions caused by anti-Netanyahu protests.
“Austin is committed to the security of Israel, but one of the main ways we have been able to work together and strengthen this relationship is that we are two democracies that share values,” the US official said, adding that these values included the right to protest.
Among the West Bank flashpoints for the United States is the village of Huwara, where the February 26 killing by a Palestinian gunman of two brothers from a Jewish settlement sparked revenge riots by settlers.
The outburst sparked global condemnation, heightened when ultra-nationalist finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is responsible for some aspects of West Bank administration, said Huwara should be “erased”.
Smotrich then offered a partial retraction.
There were no signs of the violence abating before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Since the beginning of the year, Israeli forces have killed more than 70 Palestinians, including militant fighters and civilians; during the same period, Palestinians killed 13 Israelis and one Ukrainian in seemingly uncoordinated attacks.
The judicial overhaul proposed by Netanyahu would give his nationalist-religious coalition decisive influence in the selection of judges and limit the power of the Supreme Court to strike down laws or rule against the executive.
Dozens of Israeli Air Force reservists said on Sunday they would not show up for training to protest Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, a shock to a country whose melting pot army is believed to be apolitical.