Benjamin Netanyahu fitted with pacemaker as protests in Israel intensify

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  July 23, 2023

Israel PM’s health scare comes during crisis over controversial judicial reform plans as tens of thousands protest on streets.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been taken to hospital and fitted with a pacemaker, raising new questions about the Israeli prime minister’s health, while protests against his government’s judicial overhaul reached fever pitch ahead of a crucial vote in the Knesset.

The 73-year-old was admitted to the Sheba medical centre on Saturday night after a heart monitoring device implanted last week showed anomalies, and he underwent the emergency procedure early on Sunday. The operation went smoothly and he is expected to be discharged later in the day, according to doctors.

Pacemakers are used in patients whose hearts beat too slowly, sending electrical pulses that maintain a normal rhythm in the heart. In a statement, the prime minister’s office said he felt fine, and would be able to resume some duties ahead of a marathon vote in parliament this week over abolishing the “reasonableness” clause that allows the supreme court to overrule government decisions.

Netanyahu was admitted to hospital overnight a week ago with dizziness after spending time with family on the Sea of Galilee during a heatwave. Doctors confirmed a diagnosis of dehydration, and said that while the prime minister’s heart was “in excellent condition”, he had been fitted with a monitoring device “for the sake of routine monitoring”.

The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported on Sunday however that cardiac arrhythmia had been detected in last week’s hospital visit, although that information was not publicly released at the time.

Netanyahu has had a known abnormal conduction disorder for years, but is otherwise thought to be in good health. He also spent a night in hospital last October, in the middle of election campaigning, after feeling unwell during a Yom Kippur prayer service.

Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting was postponed as a result of Netanyahu’s emergency operation, and a security assessment of the effect of the legal dispute on the military and upcoming trips to Cyprus and Turkey rescheduled. The deputy prime minister, Yarin Levin, stood in for the premier during his admission.

The hospitalization of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister comes amid the country’s worst ever domestic crisis, sparked by Netanyahu’s government’s attempts to rein in the powers of what critics say is a supreme court with too much power.

The judicial overhaul, introduced after Netanyahu returned to office at the end of last year at the head of a coalition of far-right and ultra-religious parties, has given rise to an unprecedented protest movement, including pressure from Tel Aviv’s hi-tech sector. It has damaged the value of the shekel, and drawn criticism from the US, Israel’s most important international ally.

It has also sown divisions within the military, which is mostly viewed as apolitical. Thousands of reservists have announced that they will not report for duty if the changes are passed into law, raising fears over operational readiness. On Saturday, dozens of former security officials published an open letter urging Netanyahu to call off the vote and seek consensus for reforms instead.

Polls show that Israelis are deeply divided about the overhaul in its current form.

Proponents of the changes say they are needed to rein in the perceived leftwing bias of the supreme court, which plays an important checks and balances role in a country with no second legislative chamber or formal constitution. Critics have raised fears of democratic backsliding and say the overhaul will aid Netanyahu’s fight against graft charges, which he denies.

Mass protests around the country continued as they have done for the past seven months, and an estimated 40,000 people finished a four-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, culminating in demonstrations outside the parliament building on Saturday night.

Thousands of people remained camped out near the Knesset as Sunday’s parliamentary session got under way. A counter-protest of government supporters in Tel Aviv is also expected on Sunday night.

A final vote on scrapping the “reasonableness clause”, expected by the end of this week, would be the first major piece of legislation to be approved. Its backers are determined to pass the law before the Knesset breaks up for the summer recess at the end of July.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian


Netanyahu out of hospital as thousands protest in Israel over vote on judicial overhaul

AP  /  July 24, 2023

Prime minister recovering from pacemaker operation amid street protests over judicial overhaul plan and renewed call from Joe Biden to scrap Monday’s vote.

Benjamin Netanyahu was released from hospital on Monday morning after an emergency heart procedure, a hospital spokesperson has said, as tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of his government’s judicial overhaul plan held rival rallies ahead of a key vote.

The Israeli prime minister’s convoy was seen leaving Sheba hospital near Tel Aviv on Monday morning, following his sudden hospitalization for the implant of a pacemaker.

The operation added another twist to a legislative plan that has bitterly divided the country. Monday’s vote in parliament is expected to approve the first major piece of legislation in the contentious plan.

The overhaul calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, from limiting the supreme court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected.

President Joe Biden on Sunday again called on Netanyahu not to go ahead with Monday’s vote, saying: “Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.”

Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, has attempted to broker a compromise between the prime minister and his opponents. Herzog returned on Sunday from a trip to the White House and immediately went to Netanyahu’s hospital room.

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

Herzog planned meetings later on Sunday with Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, and Benny Gantz, head of National Unity, another opposition party.

Netanyahu and his far-right allies, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, say the changes are needed to curb the powers of unelected judges. Their opponents, coming 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 protests, drawn harsh criticism from business and medical leaders, and a fast-rising number of military reservists in key units have said they will stop reporting for duty if the plan passes, raising concern that Israel’s security could be threatened.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s doctors said the procedure to fit a pacemaker had gone smoothly, but the operation has disrupted Netanyahu’s schedule. His weekly cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday morning was postponed. Two upcoming overseas trips, to Cyprus and Turkey, were being rescheduled, his office said.

In a short video statement from the hospital on Sunday, Netanyahu, 73, said he felt fine and thanked his doctors for his treatment and the public for wishing him well.

Wearing a white dress shirt and dark blazer, Netanyahu said he was pursuing a compromise with his opponents while also preparing for a vote on Monday that would enshrine a key piece of the legislation into law. “I want you to know that tomorrow morning I’m joining my colleagues at the Knesset,” he said.

On Sunday evening, 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 out in a nearby park, after completing a four-day march into the city from Tel Aviv on Saturday.

After seven months of mass protests against the plan, tensions were surging as lawmakers began a marathon debate over the first major piece of the overhaul ahead of Monday’s vote

In a fiery speech launching the session, Simcha Rothman, a main driver of the overhaul, denounced the courts, saying they damaged Israel’s democratic ideals by arbitrarily striking down government decisions. “This small clause is meant to restore democracy to the state of Israel,” Rothman said. “I call on Knesset members to approve the bill.”

Speaking in parliament, opposition leader Yair Lapid called for Netanyahu to resume compromise talks and lauded the protesters for standing up to the government. “The government of Israel launched a war of attrition against the citizens of Israel and discovered the people can’t be broken. We won’t give up on our children’s future,” he said.

Orit Farkash HaCohen, of the opposition National Unity party, broke down into tears as she criticized the government. “Our country is on fire. You’ve destroyed the country,” she said. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

More than 100 retired security chiefs publicly supported the growing ranks of military reservists who plan to stop reporting for duty if the overhaul is advanced.

“These are dangerous cracks,” military chief Lt Gen Herzi Halevi wrote in a letter to soldiers on Sunday meant to address the tensions. “If we will not be a strong and cohesive military, if the best do not serve in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”