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US defense chief delays arrival to Israel, will meet Netanyahu near airport

Defense Minister Lloyd Austin will conclude his Middle East in Israel Thursday morning, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has shortened a planned visit to Israel amid security concerns in Tel Aviv ahead of mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul.

Austin was originally scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday night after meeting with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and top military officials in Cairo.

He is now set to arrive in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning and will meet Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Netanyahu near Ben Gurion Airport, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder confirmed in a statement to Al-Monitor.

“At the request of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the location of Secretary Austin’s bilateral meetings Thursday in Tel Aviv with Israeli leaders will be relocated from the Ministry of Defense to a location near the airport,” Ryder said.

Israeli officials insisted upon the location change over concerns about the planned demonstration near the Defense Ministry at Kirya, a second US defense official speaking not for attribution confirmed to Al-Monitor. “Secretary Austin is ready to meet his counterpart and the prime minister wherever they prefer and looks forward to productive discussions,” the second official said.

The US defense chief’s visit to Israel is expected to be the last leg of Austin’s second tour of the Middle East since taking office. It has thus far has included visits to Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

Senior Pentagon officials are seeking to reassure leaders of Middle Eastern states aligned with the United States of Washington’s commitment to security relations even as the Biden administration prioritizes strategic competition with China and Russia.

Austin is expected to reaffirm the US commitment to Israel's security with respect to Iran and its armed proxies in the region and discuss US concerns about China's inroads in the region.

"He'll also be quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming holidays," a senior US defense official said ahead of the visit.

Organizers of the protests against the judicial overhaul have called on people to arrive en mass at Ben Gurion and disrupt operations there. They are particularly targeting Netanyahu's trip to Rome scheduled for Thursday evening, during which he is expected to meet with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. According to Israeli news reports, Netanyahu might arrive to the airport by helicopter rather than by car because of the demonstrations.

Over the past few days American officials have amplified their warnings about the danger of increased violence in the West Bank, calling on Israeli leaders to work to calm the situation. The Israel Defense Forces fired at a Hamas military in Gaza in retaliation for a rocket fired overnight Tuesday from the Palestinian enclave toward the south of Israel.

Austin's visit comes amid a flurry of top-level national security coordination between the United States and Israel over Iran's nuclear enrichment.

Last weekend, Washington's top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, met with IDF chief Herzi Halevi in Tel Aviv to discuss close coordination between the United States and Israel on preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon should its government pursue one.

Israel’s national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer traveled to Washington earlier this week to meet with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top US defense and intelligence officials.

The group "pledged to enhance coordination on measures to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to further deter Iran’s hostile regional activities" and "reviewed recent joint military exercises between the US military and the Israel Defense Forces," according to the White House statement.

US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Wednesday that Iran threatens both Israel and the United States. The Iranian threat to Israel, she noted, takes the form of missiles, drones and its support for Hezbollah and other proxies.

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