YB'A, Likud to Sign Merger Deal Today

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Yisrael b'Aliyah chairman Natan Sharansky will meet today in Jerusalem to sign a deal merging the two parties.

Senior Likud figures met yesterday with Sharansky's number two, Yuli Edelstein, and Eli Kazhdan, who was fifth on the Yisrael b'Aliyah list of Knesset candidates, and offered them a full merger between the parties. The sides also discussed which portfolio would be offered to Sharansky in the government. Yisrael b'Aliyah has been disappointed with the offers tabled thus far, and are continuing to demand a ministry that carries "more influence and content." The agreement between the parties will also ensure that Sharansky is a member of the security cabinet.

A second meeting between the parties will also be held today, to finalize the exact nature of the relationship between the parties. The Likud has offered a full merger, with Yisrael b'Aliyah ceasing to exist as a separate entity.

There is growing opposition within Yisrael b'Aliyah to the merger, however, at least until after the local authority elections slated for October. The merger was proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a telephone conversation with Sharansky last week, and the immigrant party's leadership has already held one meeting to discuss its future.

In contrast to the views of the party's national leadership, those members in the field (deputy mayors and local council members) believe that Yisrael b'Aliyah still has some independent political life left in it. They are convinced that the party will enjoy a resurgence of popularity in the municipal elections.

Party officials have held several conversations with Sharansky and the other leaders in recent days, in an attempt to persuade them to hold off on any move that would lead to the demise of the party until after the results of the municipal elections are known. The commonly held opinion is that, whatever portfolio Sharansky is offered in return for agreeing to allow his party to be swallowed up the Likud, will not help them garner support in the run up to municipal elections.

Regrets, I've had a few

Those who oppose merging with the Likud were heartened yesterday by the results of a survey carried out by Dr. Alex Feldman of the "Mutagim" research company, among Russian-speaking voters.

The results of the survey show that 48 percent of those questioned regret the outcome of last week's general election, while 63 percent said that they would vote differently if the elections were held tomorrow.

According to Feldman, who specializes in researching the opinions of immigrant groups in Israel, "the election results do not suit mot of the Russian-speaking voters. This section of the population is disappointed by the number of the representatives they have in the Knesset, including the drop in strength of Yisrael b'Aliyah."

The results of the survey are broadly in line with the gut feeling of Yisrael b'Aliyah's activists, who belief that there is no reason to make far-reaching decision as long as there is uncertainty over the party's future. Among the issues raised by activists in conversations with party leadership was the question of how long the next government will last, given the in-going police investigations of the prime minister. There were also questions raised regarding the stability of Shinui. According to these activists, their party would be best served by remaining in opposition and acting as a protest movement, in a similar way that Sharansky's Zionist Forum days before he established Yisrael b'Aliyah.

That said, political analysts believe that the dissenting voices are mainly being raised in order to strengthen the party's bargaining power in negotiations with the Likud - especially since the final decision will be made by Sharansky alone.