TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was released from the hospital on Monday after an emergency heart procedure, facing an unprecedented national crisis ahead of a parliamentary vote on the first major legislation to remake the country’s justice system.
The protesters, many of whom feel the very foundations of their country are being eroded by the government’s plan, intensified their opposition and blocked the road leading to Parliament. Businesses closed their doors in protest of the vote.
Driven by a coalition government 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 force and repeatedly raising the concern of even its closest ally, the United States.
Efforts were underway to find a last-minute compromise, with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog going back and forth between the sides, including a meeting at the hospital where Netanyahu was treated, to find an agreement on the way forward. But it was not clear if that would result in a compromise before the vote, scheduled for Monday afternoon.
Early Monday, protesters beating drums and honking their horns blocked a road leading to the Knesset, and police used water cannons to drive them back. The protest movement said one of its leaders was arrested.
“The state of Israel is facing destruction and ruin being wrought on it by a gang of extremists and kooks. We must go up to Jerusalem today!” an offshoot of the protest movement called out protesters on social media.
Israeli media reported that a consortium of companies announced Sunday night that some of its members would not open Monday in protest of the government’s plans, prompting large chain malls and some gas stations to close their doors.
The dramatic events were being closely watched in Washington, where the Biden administration has frequently spoken out against the Netanyahu government and its reform plan. In a statement to the Axios news site on Sunday night, Biden warned against going ahead with the divisive legal changes.
“Given the variety of threats and challenges facing Israel right now, there is no point in Israeli leaders rushing this – the focus should be on bringing people together and finding consensus,” he told the site.
Netanyahu’s sudden hospitalization for a pacemaker implant added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events that have bitterly divided his country and are sure to shape Israel’s future.
Netanyahu’s doctors said Sunday that the procedure had gone well. In a short video statement from the hospital late Sunday, Netanyahu, 73, said he was feeling fine and thanked his doctors for treating him and the public for wishing him well.
Wearing a white dress shirt and a dark blazer, Netanyahu said he was seeking a compromise with his opponents as he prepared for a vote on Monday that would enshrine a key piece of legislation into law.
“I want you to know that tomorrow morning I will meet with my colleagues in the Knesset,” he said.
The reform requires radical changes aimed at restricting 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 needed to curb the powers of unelected judges. His opponents, who come largely 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 triggered seven months of mass protestshas come under harsh criticism from business and medical leaders, and a rapidly growing number of military reservists in key units have said that stop reporting for duty if the plan is approved, concerns are growing that Israel’s security could be threatened.
President Herzog, who returned Sunday from a trip to the White House, immediately rushed to Netanyahu’s hospital room.
“This is a time of emergency,” Herzog said. «We have to come to an agreement.»
Herzog held meetings later Sunday with Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, head of National Unity, another opposition party.
As they spoke, tens of thousands of people gathered in mass rallies for and against the plan. Netanyahu’s supporters packed into central Tel Aviv, normally the scene of anti-government protests, while his opponents marched on Israel’s Knesset, or Parliament.
Many of the protesters in Jerusalem camped out in a nearby park, after completing a four-day march from Tel Aviv on Saturday.
Adding further to the pressure on the Israeli leader, thousands of military reservists have been declaring their refusal to serve under a government that is taking steps they believe set the country on the path to dictatorship. Those moves have sparked fears that the readiness of the military could be compromised.
“These are dangerous cracks,” the military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, wrote on Sunday in a letter to soldiers aimed at addressing the tensions. «If we will not be a strong and cohesive army, if the best of us do not serve in the IDF, we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.»
Despite attempts to project business as usual, Netanyahu’s schedule was disrupted by his hospitalization. His weekly cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday morning has been postponed. Two upcoming foreign trips, to Cyprus and Turkey, were being rescheduled, his office said.
In Monday’s vote, lawmakers will decide on a review 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 removing it would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, make inappropriate appointments or dismissals and open the door to corruption.
The protesters, who come from a broad swath of Israeli society, see the reform as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances by 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 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 reform plan in January, days after taking office.
Netanyahu halted the reform in March after intense pressure from protesters and labor strikes that halted outbound flights and shut down parts of the economy. After compromise talks failed last month, he said his government was pushing reform.