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Israel's top court begins hearing petitions against Netanyahu rule amid criminal charges

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Israelis wearing a protective masks against coronavirus take part in a demonstration in favour of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on May 2, 2020
Israelis wearing a protective masks against coronavirus take part in a demonstration in favour of the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on May 2, 2020   -   Copyright  JACK GUEZ / AFP
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Israel's high court began hearing petitions on Sunday that seek to block Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government because he has been charged with serious crimes.

The proceedings, held by an exceptionally large panel of 11 justices, are focusing on the issue of whether a politician can form a government while under indictment — something the Israeli legal code does not explicitly prohibit.

Netanyahu was indicted earlier this year on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.

He denied any wrongdoing, saying that the charges amounted to an "attempted coup".

In an exceptional move, Sunday's hearing was broadcast live on the high court's website while most of the country remains under coronavirus restrictions.

The judges, attorneys and clerks wore face masks, and plastic barriers separated each of the justices on the bench.

If the court voids Netanyahu's ability to serve as prime minister, Israel could plunge into political chaos, and it would likely trigger the country's fourth election in just over 12 months.

The high court has become a lightning rod for criticism by Netanyahu and his political allies, who accuse it of overreach and political interference.

The long-time leader's opponents consider it a bastion of democracy under dangerous assault.

Protesters have been taking to the streets this week to demonstrate against Netanyahu's continued rule.

Last week, other protesters rallied against the court and against its hearing the petitions against Netanyahu's rule.

His trial is scheduled to begin later this month.

It was initially due for March 17 but was postponed after Netanyahu imposed a series of restrictions to fight the Covid-19 crisis in the country.

The decision prompted critics in Israel, as the prime minister was accused of exploiting the health crisis to avoid trial.