JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “doing great” on Sunday following surgery to fit a pacemaker, as his hard-right government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan neared a key vote in parliament.
Tens of thousands of protesters have again taken to the streets against Netanyahu’s proposal to curb the powers of judges, which critics fear will undermine Israel’s democracy, while lawmakers started discussing a major plank of the package.
A vote is expected in the Knesset Monday on a bill that would limit Supreme Court judges’ ability to strike down government decisions they deem “unreasonable”.
As the crisis looked set to come to a head, Netanyahu’s office announced overnight that the 73-year-old would undergo surgery to fit a pacemaker, days after he had been hospitalised for a reported spell of dizziness.
On Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu thanked his supporters for their concern and the doctors at Sheba Medical Center for their care.
“As you can see, I am doing great,” a seated Netanyahu said in a video released by his office.
“We’re continuing our efforts to complete the legislation, and the efforts to do it in agreement (with the opposition),” he said, wearing a suit jacket open at the neck.
“Either way, I want you to know that tomorrow (Monday) morning I’m joining my friends at parliament,” he said, with a spokesman for the hospital telling AFP the premier was still at Sheba.
Earlier in the day, Sheba said Netanyahu’s condition was “good,” and that he remained in the cardiology department for observation.
Netanyahu’s government, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues that the proposed reforms will prevent overreach by unelected judges and ensure a better balance of power.
Opponents accuse Netanyahu, who has been fighting corruption charges in court, of a conflict of interest and some protesters have labelled him the “crime minister”.
“We have to keep up the pressure, we have to safeguard our democracy,” said one demonstrator, Amir Goldstein, who had spent the night in a protest camp outside parliament.
Inside the chamber, centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said: “We want to continue to live in a Jewish and a democratic state ... We must stop this legislation.”
Scheduled trips Netanyahu had been due to make to Turkey and Cyprus this week have been postponed because of his medical condition, but no new dates had yet been fixed, said his office, where Deputy Prime Minister Yariv Levin temporarily assumed the premier’s duties.
‘We can still stop’
The proposed judicial revamp has split the nation and, since its unveiling in January, set off one of the biggest protest movements in Israel’s history, also sparking concern in Washington and among other allies abroad.
Opposition figure Benny Gantz called for a halt to the legislative process on the bills. “We can still stop, come to an agreement on the reasonability clause,” he told the Knesset. “We have to stop everything.”
The debate was expected to last into Monday morning, with more than 20 lawmakers scheduled to speak against the bill, according to a list provided by parliament.
If approved, the “reasonability” clause would be the first major component of the overhaul to become law. Other proposed changes include allowing the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.
The protests, meanwhile, have drawn support from across the political and social spectrum, among secular and religious groups, peace activists and military reservists, blue-collar and tech sector workers.
Tens of thousands protested in Tel Aviv again on Saturday, for a 29th straight week, many wearing shirts emblazoned with the word “Democracy”.
On Sunday, hundreds of protesters, many carrying Israeli flags, marched through Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem’s Old City and prayed at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.
More protests were planned for later Sunday, when government supporters were also scheduled to rally.
One protester opposed to the judicial reform package, Shanna Orlik, said she was rallying against what she called a “misogynist and far-right government”.
“We don’t have a constitution, and the only thing that protects our rights is the Supreme Court, and the government intends to destroy that,” she said.