Protests Prompt Defense Secretary Austin to Cut Short Israel Trip

As demonstrations against the proposed plan to overhaul the court system and violence surges in the West Bank continue, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrival in Israel, Washington’s closest Middle East ally, has been slightly delayed and his meetings with Israeli leaders have changed location, according to a US official.

Speaking on Wednesday on condition of anonymity, the official said that it was the Israeli government that requested the change in the Thursday meetings that will occur nearer the airport instead of at Israel’s Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, as it was previously planned, Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder confirmed later.

Austin’s trip as part of his whistle-stop tour of the Middle East comes as violence has surged across the occupied West Bank to its highest levels in years.

Ever since early January, the protest marches are attracting huge crowds to the streets of Israeli cities on a weekly basis to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s court system.

In line with the legislation that Netanyahu’s government floated, the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive legislation would be limited while lawmakers would be given decisive powers in appointing judges.

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

Previously on Wednesday, US Defense Secretary met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi in Cairo to discuss improving joint military and security cooperation and the strategic partnership between the two countries.

They also discussed the surging violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, emphasizing the importance of bringing about calm in Palestinian territories by intensifying international efforts.

Important US ally, Egypt has also played a key role in brokering numerous truces between the militant Palestinian group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Austin’s Middle East tour has already taken him to Jordan and Iraq, where he came two days before the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. His visit to Baghdad was previously unannounced.

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