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Israel: Netanyahu hearing postponed amid Covid-19 lockdown

The attorney-general also announces he intends to file criminal charges over tax offences against Interior Minister Aryeh Deri
Deri, left, was appointed as interior minister in Netanyahu's, right, cabinet in January 2016 (AFP)

A planned court appearance next week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his long-waited trial for corruption has been indefinitely delayed in the face of Israel's freshly tightened Covid-19 lockdown, judges announced on Friday.

Netanyahu's trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust began last May, with the premier being excused from subsequent hearings as his lawyers argued for more time to review prosecution evidence.

The Israeli prime minister was due to be in court on Wednesday for the presentation of his formal response to the charges.

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But in a statement issued on Friday, the Jerusalem district court ruled that "taking into consideration the large number of participants in the hearing and the lockdown [in place], the hearing set for 13 January 2021 is hereby cancelled. 

"A new date will be announced separately."

Separately, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced on Friday that he intended to file criminal charges against Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for tax offences, pending a hearing.

Deri, who was convicted and jailed for bribery several decades ago, had initially been suspected of the same charge when the current investigation began five years ago.

However, Mandelblit is to charge him with lesser offences of failing twice to report income tax to authorities and other tax offences allegedly committed while selling apartments in Jerusalem to his brother, Shlomo.

Deri had also been suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over the alleged diversion of hundreds of thousands of shekels in state funds to NGOs run by members of his immediate family, but those charges were dropped.

Hundreds of witnesses

The postponement of Netanyahu's hearing comes just two days after the same panel of judges rejected a request by the prime minister's lawyers to delay next week's hearing.

Israel last month imposed its third national lockdown since the start of the pandemic, but tightened the restrictions further on Friday after the daily caseload remained high. 

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A Thursday memo issued by the courts administration said justices should postpone hearings when possible until the end of the lockdown, currently set for 21 January. 

The longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, Netanyahu says the charges against him - filed by Mandelblit, who he appointed - are part of a witch-hunt to drive him from office. 

The prosecution has assembled more than 300 witnesses to back its allegations, AFP reported.

Among the charges against Netanyahu, the first prime minister in Israeli history to be indicted while in office, are that he accepted improper gifts and sought to illegally trade favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

Last month, the court ordered the prosecution to amend the charge sheet against Netanyahu to differentiate between him and family members mentioned in it, who are not on trial.