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Israel's Netanyahu is hospitalized to receive a pacemaker

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Old City of Jerusalem in May 2023.
Maya Alleruzzo
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Old City of Jerusalem in May 2023.

Updated July 22, 2023 at 10:17 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was recovering in a hospital on Sunday after an emergency heart procedure while opposition to his government's contentious judicial overhaul plan reached a fever pitch and unrest gripped the country.

Netanyahu's doctors said on Sunday the heart pacemaker implantation went smoothly and that Netanyahu, 73, felt fine. According to his office, he was expected to be discharged later in the day. But tensions were surging as lawmakers began a marathon debate over the first major piece of the overhaul, ahead of a vote in parliament enshrining it into law on Monday.

Mass protests continued, part of seven straight months of the most sustained and intense demonstrations the country has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Israel on Saturday night, while thousands marched into Jerusalem and camped out near the Knesset, or parliament, ahead of Monday's vote.

Netanyahu's sudden hospitalization added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events that are certain to shape Israel's future. It comes as the longest-serving Israeli leader faces the gravest challenge of his leadership and the country's worst domestic crisis which has shaken the economy, forged cracks in the country's military and tested the delicate social fabric that holds the polarized country together.

Lawmakers began their debate despite the hospitalization. In a fiery speech launching the session, Simcha Rothman, a main driver of the overhaul, denounced the courts, saying they damaged Israel's democratic fundamentals 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."

Still Netanyahu's health woes disrupted his routine. The weekly Cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday morning was postponed and Israeli Army Radio reported that a security assessment of the effect of the legal dispute on the military was also taken off Netanyahu's schedule. Two upcoming overseas trips, to Cyprus and Turkey, were being rescheduled, his office said.

Netanyahu's office said that he was sedated during the implantation and that a top deputy, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, stood in for him while he underwent the procedure. Levin, a close confidant of the prime minister, is the mastermind of the overhaul.

In a brief video statement before the implantation, Netanyahu said he "feels excellent" and planned to push forward with the judicial overhaul as soon as he was released, adding that he expected to be released in time to go to the Knesset for Monday's vote.

Legislators are set to vote on an overhaul measure that would limit the Supreme Court's oversight powers by preventing judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are "unreasonable." Monday's vote would mark the first major piece of legislation to be approved.

Proponents say the current "reasonability" standard gives judges excessive powers over decision-making by elected officials. Critics say removing the standard, which is invoked infrequently, would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, make improper appointments or firings and open the door to corruption.

The overhaul also calls for other 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.

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.

The valley beneath the Knesset was dotted with silver-colored tents, many draped with Israeli flags. Protesters did morning stretches as the parliamentary session got underway. A large protest against the overhaul was expected later Sunday in Jerusalem, as was a counter-protest of government supporters in Tel Aviv.

Protesters, who come from a wide swath of Israeli society, see the overhaul as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances of Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption charges — and his partners who want to deepen Israel's control of the occupied West Bank and perpetuate controversial draft 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. They released him then after implanting a device to monitor his heart but he was hospitalized again Sunday because it showed anomalies, prompting the need for a pacemaker.

Professor Roy Beinart, senior physician and director at the Davidai Arrhythmia Center at Sheba Medical Center's Heart Institute, said in a video that the prime minister needed the pacemaker because he experienced "a temporary arrhythmia," or irregular heartbeat, Saturday evening.

"The implantation went smoothly, without any complications. He is not in a life-threatening condition," Beinart said. "He feels great and is returning to his daily routine."

Further ratcheting up the pressure on the Israeli leader, military reservists in fast-rising numbers have been declaring their refusal to serve under a government taking steps that they see as setting the country on a path to dictatorship. Those moves have prompted fears that the military's preparedness could be compromised.

Among them are essential fighter pilots and ground air force personnel. Some 10,000 reservists from across the military announced Saturday night that they too would stop showing up for duty. Over 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 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, we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region."

Netanyahu and his far-right allies announced the overhaul plan in January, days after taking office. They claim the plan is needed to curb what they say are the excessive powers of unelected judges. Critics say the plan will destroy the country's system of checks and balances and put it on the path toward authoritarian rule. U.S. President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to halt the plan and seek a broad consensus.

Netanyahu paused the overhaul in March after intense pressure by protesters and labor strikes that halted outgoing flights and shut down parts of the economy. After talks to find a compromise failed, he said his government was pressing on with the overhaul.

Netanyahu keeps a busy schedule and his office says he is in good health. But over the years, it has released few details concerning his well-being or medical records.

A pacemaker is used when a patient's heart beats too slowly, which can cause fainting spells, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can also be used to treat heart failure. By sending electrical pulses to the heart, the device keeps a person's heartbeat at a normal rhythm. Patients with pacemakers often return to regular activities within a few days, according to NIH. A hospital stay of at least a day is usually required.

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The Associated Press
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