Last-ditch efforts to reach a compromise on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan dragged late into the night on Sunday as tens of thousands of protesters rallying for and against the proposal took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog called the situation an “emergency” as he met with Netanyahu and opposition leaders, while the United States White House urged the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, not to rush the “divisive” changes.
The vote on the draft law – which would limit the ability of Supreme Court judges to strike down government decisions they deem “unreasonable” – is expected in the Knesset on Monday.
Netanyahu, who is in hospital after an unscheduled pacemaker implant, said he was doing “excellently” and would be discharged in time for the vote.
The bill, if passed, would be the first reform written into law of a package critics fear aims to curb judicial independence but which Netanyahu insists is needed for balance among branches of government.
As the crisis looked set to come to a head, Herzog, who has returned from a visit to the US, drove directly to the Sheba Medical Center for a meeting with Netanyahu late on Sunday.
“This is a time of emergency. An agreement must be reached,” the president said in a statement issued by his office.
He then met with opposition leader Yair Lapid and was due to confer with another politician, Benny Gantz.
His office, however, declined to comment on the meetings.
‘More divisive, not less’
US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, issued a statement saying: “It doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this – the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus”.
“From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” he added.
Netanyahu earlier on Sunday issued a statement saying his government was continuing to pursue efforts to reach a compromise. The 73-year-old embattled leader was speaking from the Sheba Medical Center, where he had been rushed on Saturday after a heart monitor implanted a week earlier detected a “temporary arrhythmia”.
“We are pursuing efforts to complete the legislation as well as efforts to do this through consensus,” Netanyahu said in a video statement that showed him seated, smiling and wearing a blazer. “But in any event, I want you to know that tomorrow morning, I’ll be joining my colleagues in the Knesset.”
The hospital said Netanyahu remained in its cardiology department for observation.
Netanyahu and his far-right allies, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, say the judicial changes are needed to curb the powers of unelected judges. Their opponents, coming largely from Israel’s professional middle class, accuse Netanyahu – who has been fighting corruption charges in court – of a conflict of interest.
Some protesters have labelled him the “crime minister”.
They say the plan will open the door to abuses of power by removing one of the few effective checks on the executive’s authority in a country without a formal written constitution.
Poll results aired by the national broadcaster Kan found that 46 percent of Israelis were opposed to the amendment versus 35 percent who were in favour and 19 percent who were undecided.
The plan has triggered seven months of mass protests and drawn harsh criticism from business and medical leaders.
A fast-rising number of military reservists in key units have said they will stop reporting for duty if the plan passes. More than 100 retired security chiefs have also publicly supported the reservists.
“These are dangerous cracks,” military chief Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi wrote in a letter to soldiers on Sunday, which was 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’s army], we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”
In Jerusalem, tens of thousands of protesters calling for the proposed judicial overhaul to be scrapped lined the city’s streets on Sunday, carrying flags and beating drums under a scorching summer sun. Many had pitched tents in a park near the Knesset after completing a four-day march into the city from Tel Aviv on Saturday.
“We’re worried, we’re scared, we’re angry. We’re angry that people are trying to change this country, trying to create a democratic backslide. But we’re also very, very hopeful,” said Tzivia Guggenheim, a 24-year-old student.
Counter-protesters, meanwhile, massed in Tel Aviv, where another 24-year-old student, Aviya Cohen, said she had come to send a message to the government she had voted for.
“I am 100 percent in favour of the judicial reforms. I think my country needs it. I think we absolutely need to go through with it,” she said.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, speaking at the Tel Aviv rally, said the bill being put to legislators on Monday had already undergone changes to accommodate critics but added that the coalition was still open to “understandings”.
“Understandings means the opposition’s willingness to make concessions too,” he told supporters.
The overhaul plan was first announced in January, days after Netanyahu took office.
The prime minister, who is in his sixth record term in office, paused the overhaul in March after intense pressure from protesters and labour strikes that halted outgoing flights and shut down parts of the economy.
After talks to find a compromise failed last month, he said his government was pressing on with the overhaul.