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Yisrael b'Aliyah founder Natan Sharansky signed a deal yesterday with Likud leader Ariel Sharon, giving the prime minister an unprecedented 40-seat bloc in the Knesset even before he starts forming a new coalition next week.

Sharansky is also to be a member of the inner security cabinet, while MK Yuli Edelstein, who is number two on the party's list, is to be given a deputy ministerial post. The signing of the deal yesterday coincided with the 17th anniversary of Sharansky's release from Soviet prison and arrival in Israel, and marks the end of Yisrael b'Aliyah as an independent political entity.

Sharansky expressed his satisfaction after the meeting, saying that he would be responsible for issues he is deeply concerned about. He added that it was important to be a member of the diplomatic negotiating team at a critical time in the nation's history.

There was criticism within the Likud, however, of Sharon's willingness to offer Sharansky the post of minister with responsibility for Jerusalem even before he had formed a new coalition. They also said the move contradicted Sharon's stated intention of cutting down on the number of ministers in the next government.

Several political figures expressed their concern yesterday that there could be a clash of interests between Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sharansky, if the areas of responsibility overlap. Sources close to Netanyahu said, however, that the foreign minister was not troubled by that possibility.

Sharon, meanwhile, has been strengthening his ties with the immigrant community. On Wednesday, he met with members of the Likud's immigrant election team, who told him that the party had gained an extra nine seats thanks to the immigrant vote. Sharon aides said yesterday that the election results, and their implications for the immigrant parties, have increased the importance the prime minister sees in retaining those voters.