US defense chief urges Israel to keep judicial independence, curb violence

Jerusalem, Mar 9 (EFE).- US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday urged Israel to guarantee the independence of its judiciary and to de-escalate violence with the Palestinians.

Austin was in Tel Aviv on a visit held amid massive protests against the right-wing coalition government’s justice reforms and a sharp escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US-Israel relationship is “rooted in the shared values of democracy and freedom and the rule of law. And those values remain essential,” Austin said during a press conference after meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant.

The “genius” of American and Israeli democracies is that they are built on “strong institutions, on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary”, Austin said, highlighting the importance of “building consensus” for reforms “so they can be sustained”.

A controversial justice reform tabled by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which seeks to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, has polarized Israel.

The discontent has gripped broad sectors of Israeli society – from intellectuals and businessmen to soldiers – and has triggered the largest protests in the country in decades.

Austin was forced into last minute changes to his schedule in Israel due to blockades on major roads in the country by demonstrators against the right-wing coalition government’s reforms.

Unable to travel by land, Netanyahu had to take a helicopter from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to meet with Austin near the airport.

Austin also addressed the ongoing escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, which has left at least 85 people dead so far this year, many of them civilians, amid deadly attacks by Jewish and Palestinian settlers, as well as ongoing Israeli army raids in the occupied West Bank leading to clashes with militants.

The US Defense Secretary stressed to his Israeli counterpart “the need to de-escalate, lower tensions and restore calm”, while urging the Palestinian leadership to “resume security cooperation and condemn incitement.”

Austin also pointed out that the US “remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion, and inflammatory rhetoric.”

Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has approved more Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and his ministers have caused international outrage for their anti-Arab rhetoric, amid massive aggression by settlers against Palestinian villages.

Austin said he was “especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians” and called for a halt to unilateral actions that undermine the goal of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Gallant assured that his country is “interested in the economic prosperity and well-being of the Palestinian people,” but that this “should never come at the expense of the life of a single citizen of Israel.” EFE


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