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Israel's Jewish Home party splits ahead of April election

Jewish Home, which has drawn on support from Israeli settlers in occupied West Bank, had eight of parliament's 120 seats
Israel's Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, right, and Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announce formation of new political party at news conference in Tel Aviv on Saturday (Reuters)

A religious-nationalist party in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government split on Saturday, with its leaders saying they planned to appeal to more secular constituents ahead of an April election.

The Jewish Home party's schism posed no immediate threat to Netanyahu, for whom polls predict an easy win to a fifth term. But it suggested his fellow rightists were interested in poaching votes from a centre-left opposition energised by the candidacy of an Israeli ex-general, Benny Gantz.

The Jewish Home leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, told reporters that he and his deputy, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, were leaving to form "a new party, of religious and secular together ... in true partnership", Reuters reported.

The party, "New Right", would, like Jewish Home, pursue hawkish security policies including opposition to a Palestinian state, Bennett said.

Bennett said that Jewish Home was unable to influence policy anymore and that "Netanyahu realized that the religious Zionist community is in his pocket, and no matter how much he abused them, in the end they will always go with him," Haaretz said.

It was not immediately clear whether Jewish Home was also continuing as a party.

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Jewish Home, which has drawn on support from Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, had eight of parliament's 120 seats.

Another politician, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, said after the news conference that she was also leaving Jewish Home and joining Bennett and Shaked, Haaretz reported. Bennett and Shaked needed at least one more parliamentarian to leave the party in order to obtain campaign funding from the state.

Prior to Bennett's announcement, polls had predicted the party would take around the same number in the 9 April vote, trailing Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and at least three centre-left parties.

Bennett has frequently locked horns with Netanyahu, accusing the prime minister of being too restrained in Gaza fighting.

After Bennett's announcement, Likud issued a statement saying that only by voting for it would right-wingers "guarantee that the next government ... will not be a left-wing government".

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