Austin, who is on a regional tour, landed at Ben Gurion Airport where hundreds of protesters gathered on Thursday. He was greeted on the tarmac by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and was due to have a meeting with Netanyahu.
However, the visit by the Pentagon chief came as Israeli demonstrators intensified their opposition to a contentious government proposal to reform the judiciary.
Protesters waving Israeli flags descended on the country’s international airport, blocking the main road leading to the departures area with their cars. The disruption snarled traffic and it was not clear if and how Netanyahu would reach the airport.
Police handed out traffic tickets as protesters held signs reading, “Dictator: don’t come back”. Security officers could be seen pushing and shoving demonstrators outside the facility.
Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported Netanyahu would fly by helicopter to the airport, circumventing the protesters. The prime minister’s office declined to comment.
The police, overseen by ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, pledged to prevent disturbances and said they had already made arrests as the protests got under way.
Police on horseback were stationed in central Tel Aviv where protesters marched and a water cannon truck was parked nearby. Red billboards festooning the city’s main highway read “resistance to dictatorship is mandatory”.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked main intersections in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small flotilla of paddleboards and kayaks tried to close off a main maritime shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa.
Some demonstrators barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think tank helping to spearhead the judicial changes.
The uproar over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises.
Beyond the protests, which have drawn tens of thousands to the streets and recently became violent, opposition has surged from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against what they say will be the ruinous effects of the plan.
The rift has not spared Israel’s military, which is seeing unprecedented opposition from within its own ranks.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a protracted political stalemate, and his allies say the measures aim to rein in a court that has overstepped its authority.
“The protests show how solid our democracy is,” Netanyahu told the Italian daily La Repubblica ahead of a trip to Rome, adding, “A reform is necessary. The judiciary must be independent, not omnipotent.”
Critics say the overhaul will upset the delicate system of checks and balances and slide Israel towards authoritarianism. Critics also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, is driven by personal grievances and he could find an escape route from the charges through the overhaul.
He denies wrongdoing and says the legal changes have nothing to do with his trial. Netanyahu and his allies have pledged to press ahead with a series of bills that would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review legislation and give coalition politicians control over judicial appointments.
An attempt by Israel’s ceremonial president to defuse the crisis through an alternative legal reform has so far been unsuccessful.