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Bid to block Israel PM's attempt to boost 'racist' party

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's widely criticised attempts to boost a party many view as racist in April elections could be blocked if his opponents succeed in a bid to disqualify its candidates.

A range of politicians seeking to oust Netanyahu have supported a petition seeking to have candidates for the party, Jewish Power, barred from participating in the April 9 election on the grounds of incitement to racism.

Netanyahu last week brokered a deal that saw Jewish Power join with two other far-right parties to form one list to boost its chances of making it into parliament after the polls.

The prime minister, with an eye on his next coalition government should he win, says the move was necessary to ensure enough seats in the next parliament for right-wing parties.

But Netanyahu has received condemnation both at home and abroad over the move, with many accusing him of easing the path for anti-Arab "racists" to make it into parliament.

He has even faced rare criticism from pro-Israel organisations in the United States, including from lobbying group AIPAC, which called the party "racist and reprehensible".

Jewish Power leaders are followers of late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was labelled a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

- 'No other choice' -

Netanyahu is in the midst of a tough re-election campaign while under the threat of being indicted on corruption charges.

His right-wing Likud is not directly part of the pact between the far-right parties, though Netanyahu pushed to have the merger formed.

"We had no other choice," Likud official Eli Hazan told Israel's i24 television when asked why Netanyahu was "basically OK with bringing racists into the Israeli parliament."

"We need to win the elections," he added, saying Likud did not want Arab Israeli parties to help form the next government.

Left-wing party Meretz filed a petition to the central elections committee on Tuesday to have Jewish Power candidates disqualified.

Centrist party Yesh Atid as well as the Labour party have said they support the petition.

A Meretz spokesman told AFP on Wednesday they had collected the 12 votes needed to have the request debated by the committee.

"A terror organisation has no place in the Knesset," or parliament, Meretz said in a statement.

The central elections committee, headed by a supreme court justice, is comprised of representatives of the parties in parliament.

A spokesman for the committee said the deliberations on disqualifying lists would take place between March 6-10.

Israel's supreme court has the final word on whether candidates can be disqualified.

Jewish Power advocates removing "Israel's enemies from our land," a reference to Palestinians and Arab Israelis who carry out attacks or who they see as not accepting the Jewish state they envision.

It also calls for Israel annexing the occupied West Bank, where more than 2.5 million Palestinians live.

The Kach movement founded by Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990, wanted to chase Arabs from Israel.

- 'Did not foresee' -

Likud has hit back at attempts to bar Jewish Power candidates by saying it planned to petition the elections committee to disqualify Arab party Balad from taking part in the vote.

Right-wing politicians regularly condemn Israeli Arab politicians over their support for the Palestinian cause.

Mordechai Kremnitzer of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor emeritus at Jerusalem's Hebrew University said it seemed Netanyahu had been taken aback by criticism over the Jewish Power agreement.

"I think that he probably did not foresee the level or degree of critique that came both from Israel and Jews abroad against it," he told AFP.

"This was really a surprise to everybody, including Netanyahu, that AIPAC, the most loyal organisation to all Israeli governments, never criticising anything that Israel does, would come out with criticism."

Netanyahu is facing a serious challenge from a centrist alliance of parties led by respected former military chief of staff Benny Gantz.

The prime minister has sought to label Gantz, despite his military background, a weak "leftist".

A video posted by Likud on Tuesday night drew criticism for going too far.

The video warned against voting for Gantz because it would lead to "more violence," and included images of sites of attacks against Israelis as well as a shot of a military cemetery.

Netanyahu said the video had been a mistake and Likud was suspending those responsible for it.

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