June 24, 2024

Netanyahu leaves hospital as Israel faces key vote – and crisis – over divisive law changes

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was released from the hospital Monday after an emergency heart procedure, facing an unprecedented national crisis ahead of parliament’s vote on the first major piece of legislation to overhaul the country’s justice system.

Demonstrators, many of whom feel their country’s foundations are being eroded by the government’s plan, mounted their opposition, blocking a road in front of parliament. Businesses across the country closed their doors in protest against the vote.

Driven by a ruling coalition made up of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, the judicial reform has divided Israel, testing the delicate social ties that bind the country, shaking the cohesion of its powerful military and drawing repeated concerns from even its closest ally, the United States.

Efforts to reach a last ditch compromise were underway, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog shuttling between the sides, including a meeting at the hospital where Netanyahu was treated, to bring the side to an agreement on the way forward. But it was not clear whether these would lead to compromise.

Early Monday, protesters blocked a road leading to the Knesset, and police used water cannons to push them back. Israeli media reported that a consortium of businesses announced late Sunday that some of their members would not open Monday in protest against the government’s plans, leaving large mall chains and some gas stations to seal their doors.

The dramatic events were closely watched in Washington, where the Biden administration has often spoken out against the Netanyahu government and its reform plan. In a statement to the news site Axios late Sunday, Biden warned against pushing ahead with the legal changes that have fueled so much division.

“Given the range of threats and challenges facing Israel right now, it makes no sense for Israeli leaders to rush this – the focus should be on bringing people together and reaching a consensus,” he told the site.

Netanyahu’s sudden hospitalization for a pacemaker implant added yet another devastating twist to an already dramatic series of events that have sharply divided his country and are sure to shape Israel’s future.

Netanyahu’s doctors said Sunday that the procedure had gone smoothly. In a short 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.

Dressed in a white dress shirt and dark blazer, Netanyahu said he was pursuing a compromise with his opponents as he prepared for a vote on Monday that would enshrine the key piece of legislation into law.

“I want you to know that I will be working with my colleagues at the Knesset tomorrow morning,” he said.

Reform requires rapid changes in focus to restrict 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 ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, say the changes are needed to limit the powers of unelected judges. Opponents, mostly 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 has seven motivations months of mass protestssharp criticism from business and medical leaders, and has been voiced by a rapidly growing number of military reservists in key units. stop reporting for duty if the plan is successful, concerns are raised that Israel’s security could be threatened.

President Herzog, who returned Sunday from a trip to the White House, immediately went to Netanyahu’s hospital room.

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

Herzog had meetings later on Sunday with the leader of the Israeli opposition, Yair Lapid, and Benny Gantz, the leader of National Unity, another opposition party.

As they spoke, thousands of people were gathering for massive rallies for and against the plan. Netanyahu’s supporters stormed Tel Aviv – usually the site of anti-government protests – while his opponents marched on Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.

Many of the protesters in Jerusalem had camped out in a nearby park, after four days’ march into the city from Tel Aviv on Saturday.

Despite efforts to conduct business as usual, Netanyahu’s schedule was disrupted when he was in the hospital. His weekly Cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday morning was postponed. Two upcoming foreign trips, to Cyprus and Turkey, were being rescheduled, his office said.

In a vote on Monday, lawmakers are to decide on a sweeping reform measure that would prevent judges from overturning government decisions on the grounds that they are “unreasonable”.

Proponents say the current “reasonableness” standard gives judges excessive powers over decision-making by elected officials. Critics say that it would enable the government to pass arbitrary decisions, inappropriate appointments or firing and open the door to corruption.

Protesters, who come from a wide range of Israeli society, see the reform as a power driven by personal and political grievances of Netanyahu – who is on trial for corruption charges – and his partners who want to deepen Israeli control over the occupied West Bank and perpetuate controversial draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men.

Netanyahu was rushed to the 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 suggested that Netanyahu’s health issues were more serious than he had initially said.

Increasing pressure on the Israeli leader, thousands of military reservists are declaring their refusal to serve under a government taking steps they see as putting the country on the path to a dictatorship. There are those moves prompted fears that the readiness of the army could be compromised.

More than 100 retired security chiefs have publicly backed the growing ranks of military reservists who plan to stop reporting for duty if the overhaul goes ahead.

“These are dangerous cracks,” wrote military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi in ​​a letter to soldiers on Sunday to address the tension. “If we are not a strong and integrated army, if the best people do not serve in the IDF, we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”

Netanyahu and his far-right allies announced the reform plan in January, days after he took office.

Netanyahu put the reform on hold 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 pressing ahead with reform.


Scharf reported from Jerusalem.

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