Netanyahu leaves hospital as Israel faces major vote on legal changes

Nabil Anas

Global Courant

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was released from hospital Monday after emergency heart surgery.

Protesters, many of whom feel their country’s foundations are being eroded by the government’s plan, stepped up their opposition and blocked a road leading to parliament. Businesses closed their doors in protest against the vote.

Driven by a governing coalition made up of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, the judicial overhaul has divided Israel, tested the delicate social ties that bind the country, disrupted the cohesion of its powerful military, and repeatedly aroused concern even among its closest ally, the United States.

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Attempts to find a last-ditch compromise were underway, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog bouncing back and forth between the parties, including a meeting at the hospital where Netanyahu was being treated, to find an agreement on the course to follow. But it was unclear whether they would lead to a compromise ahead of the vote, expected Monday afternoon.

Early Monday, protesters beating drums and blowing horns blocked a road leading to the Knesset, and police used water cannons to push them back. The protest movement said one of its leaders has been arrested.

“The State of Israel faces destruction and destruction brought upon it by a band of extremists and goons. We must go to Jerusalem today!” one branch of the protest movement called out to protesters on social media.

Israeli media reported that a consortium of companies announced late on Sunday that some of their members would not open on Monday in protest of the government’s plans, leading major retail chains and some gas stations to seal their doors.

The dramatic events were closely watched in Washington, from where the Biden administration has repeatedly spoken out against the Netanyahu administration and its overhaul plan. In a statement to the Axios news site late Sunday, Biden warned not to go ahead with the legal changes that led to so much division.

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“Given the range of threats and challenges Israel is currently facing, there is no point in Israeli leaders rushing this – the focus should be on bringing people together and building consensus,” he told the site.

Netanyahu’s sudden hospitalization for a pacemaker implant added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic chain of events that has bitterly divided his country and will surely shape Israel’s future.

Netanyahu’s doctors said on Sunday the procedure had gone smoothly. In a brief video statement from the hospital late Sunday, Netanyahu, 73, said he felt fine and thanked his doctors for his treatment and the public for wishing him well.

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Wearing a white shirt and dark blazer, Netanyahu said he was seeking compromise with his opponents while also preparing for a Monday vote that would enshrine a key piece of legislation into law.

“I want you to know that tomorrow morning I will join my colleagues in the Knesset,” he said.

The overhaul calls for sweeping changes that are envisaged limiting the powers of the judiciaryfrom limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected.

Netanyahu and his far-right allies, a collection of ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, say the changes are necessary to curb the power of unelected judges. Their detractors, largely drawn from Israel’s professional middle class, say the plan will destroy the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and push Israel toward authoritarian rule.

The plan activated seven of them months of mass protestshas received harsh criticism from business and medical leaders, and a rapidly growing number of military reservists in key units have said they will stop reporting for duty if adopted, the plan raises concerns that Israel’s security could be compromised.

President Herzog, returning from a trip to the White House on Sunday, immediately rushed to Netanyahu’s hospital room.

“This is a time of need,” Herzog said. “We have to come to an agreement.”

Herzog later on Sunday met with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid and National Unity head Benny Gantz, another opposition party.

As they spoke, tens of thousands of people gathered for mass rallies for and against the plan. Netanyahu’s supporters thronged central Tel Aviv — normally the setting for anti-government protests — while his opponents marched on Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.

Many of the protesters in Jerusalem had camped in a nearby park, following a four-day march into the city from Tel Aviv on Saturday.

To further increase pressure on the Israeli leader, thousands of military reservists have declared their refusal to serve under a government that is taking steps they believe are putting the country on a path to dictatorship. Those steps have led to fears that the military’s preparedness could be compromised.

“These are dangerous cracks,” army chief Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi wrote on Sunday in a letter to soldiers intended to address tensions. “If we are not a strong and cohesive army, if the best do not serve in the IDF, we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”

Despite efforts to project business as usual, Netanyahu’s schedule was disrupted by his hospitalization. His weekly cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday morning was postponed. Two upcoming overseas trips, to Cyprus and Turkey, were rescheduled, his office said.

In Monday’s vote, lawmakers must decide on a review measure that would prevent judges from overturning government decisions because they are “unreasonable”.

Proponents say the current “standard of fairness” gives judges excessive powers over elected officials’ decision-making. Critics say removing it would allow the government to make arbitrary decisions, make improper appointments or dismissals, and open the door to corruption.

Protesters, drawn from much of Israeli society, see the overhaul as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances from Netanyahu – who is on trial on corruption charges – and his associates who want to deepen Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank and perpetuate controversial draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men.

Netanyahu was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night, a week after being hospitalized for what doctors said was dehydration.

The sudden hospitalization for the pacemaker procedure indicated that Netanyahu’s health problems were more serious than he initially said.

Netanyahu and his far-right allies announced the revision plan in January, days after taking office.

Netanyahu paused the revision in March after intense pressure from protesters and labor strikes that halted outbound flights and shut down parts of the economy. After talks to reach a compromise failed last month, he said his government was moving ahead with the review.

Netanyahu leaves hospital as Israel faces major vote on legal changes

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