Israeli lawmakers are set to vote on the first part of the government’s sweeping plan to weaken the power of the country’s courts on Monday, despite six months of street protests, parliamentary maneuvering, compromise talks and increasingly urgent warnings from the White House.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who left hospital on Monday morning after having been fitted with a pacemaker, has been pressing on with his plans for the judicial system overhaul even as protests against them show no signs on easing.
He and his allies call the measures “reforms” and say they are required to rebalance powers between the courts, lawmakers and the government. Opponents of the plan call it a “coup” and say it threatens to turn Israel into a dictatorship by removing the most significant checks on government actions.
The demonstrations continued on Monday. Huge crowds of people waving flags took over the area around the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, despite the sweltering heat. The protesters were met with police water cannons, fences and barbed wire as they attempted to block access to the building. At least 12 protesters had been arrested outside the Knesset by early afternoon on Monday, Israel Police said.
The Knesset begun discussing the first part of the reform on Sunday, with so many lawmakers requesting time to speak that the discussion was scheduled to last 26 hours.
Netanyahu continues to push the controversial package despite repeated warnings by the US President Joe Biden that rushing it through without a broad consensus amounts to an erosion of democratic institutions and could undermine US-Israel relations.
It’s unusual for the Biden administration to weigh in forcefully on another country’s internal politics, underscoring how seriously he views the current situation in Israel. The US is by far Israel’s most important ally.
“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,” Biden said in a statement provided to CNN.
Biden raised concerns directly with Netanyahu during a phone call last week and then called New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to the Oval Office to make clear his stance on the judicial overhaul.
Monday’s vote is on the so-called reasonableness bill, which would strip the Supreme Court of the power to declare government decisions unreasonable. It could be voted into law in on Monday evening.
Other elements of the judicial overhaul would give the far-right coalition government more control of the appointment of judges, and would remove independent legal advisers from government ministries. Those bills have not advanced as far in the legislative process at the reasonableness bill.
The Israel Bar Association is already preparing a legal challenge to the bill, the lawyers’ group said Sunday.
Its executive, the Bar Council, is holding an emergency meeting to approve the decision to petition the Supreme Court to cancel the reasonableness law if it passes on Monday, the Bar said.
The Bar is also warning it will shut down “as an act of protest against the anti-democratic legislative process,” the statement said. That means the Bar Association would not provide professional services to its members, not that lawyers would go on strike.
The judicial overhaul plan has also prompted threats from military reservists as more than 1,000 Israel Air Force reserve officers vowed to stop volunteering if the judicial overhaul bill passes.
The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces warned the reservists against taking that step. “No service members have the right to say that they will no longer serve,” he said in an open letter to the military on Sunday.
“I call on all reservists, even in these complex days, to separate civil protests from reporting for duty to the security services. The calls to not report for duty harm the IDF and its readiness,” Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Israel’s top military officer, said in the letter.
Opponents of the overhaul have been demonstrating against the plan since it was announced in January – on 29 consecutive Saturday nights and with other planned or spontaneous demonstrations on weekdays.
Thousands of Israelis opposing the judicial overhaul marched into Jerusalem Saturday night, completing a five-day walk from Tel Aviv.
One protester, Yair Amon, told CNN during a march on Saturday that the demonstrations would not stop even if the Knesset passes the first part of the legislation. “We’re not going to let them destroy our democracy. Benjamin Netanyahu is a criminal and we have to get rid of him,” he said.
A group of 150 leading Israeli companies including shopping malls, supermarkets, real estate agents and investment firms went on strike Monday over the overhaul. The Israel Business Forum called on the government “to stop the controversial unilateral legislation until further negotiations take place and greater consensus is reached among the parties.”
Netanyahu’s health issues
The final vote comes with Netanyahu facing health issues.
The Israeli leader was first admitted to hospital last Saturday. His office said at the time that he had experienced dizziness, while Israeli media reported that he fainted. He was released the following day after doctors at the Sheba Medical Center fitted him with a heart monitor.
Netanyahu was hospitalized again over the weekend and was fitted with a pacemaker early Sunday morning, according to a statement from his office. The procedure happened at Tel Hashomer Hospital and the Prime Minister was sedated during the surgery.
Roy Beinart, director of the Davidai Center for Rhythm Disturbances and Pacing at Sheba Medical Center, said Netanyahu had the heart monitor implanted because of a known conduction disorder – another name for a heart block.
Beinart said doctors had known about the condition “for many years.”
Netanyahu was hospitalized again over the weekend and was fitted with a pacemaker early Sunday morning, according to a statement from his office.
Netanyahu released a short video statement later Sunday, saying he was “doing great” after the operation. “I would like to thank the many of you who have asked how I am doing. I am doing great. Tomorrow morning I will join my colleagues in the Knesset,” Netanyahu said in the 25-second video. He was released on Monday and was headed to the Knesset for the vote.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Kevin Liptak contributed reporting.