Despite the ban, Downing Street is pressing ahead with preparations for the summit while awaiting an official response from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to a letter sent to him from his UK counterpart Tony Blair requesting that the travel ban be reconsidered. Blair’s plea is unlikely to be well received by Sharon, who decided to bar the Palestinians from the summit after a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv on 5 January killed 22 people.

Sharon’s right-wing government has given short shrift to the conference, which is scheduled for late January. Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the meeting as ‘some publicity stunt abroad’. His support for the ban prompted a heated row with his UK counterpart Jack Straw who warned Netanyahu that ‘instead of concentrating on dealing with terrorism, [Israel] is striking at the [Palestinian] delegates’.

Relations between London and Israel’s government have grown increasingly fraught in the run-up to Israel’s 28 January general elections. Having apparently declined a meeting with Netanyahu during the former Israeli premier’s visit to London in December, Blair is scheduled to meet privately with Israeli opposition candidate Amram Mitzna on 9 January.

Things have been no better for Sharon at home. Support for his right-wing Likud party has haemorrhaged following a series of corruption scandals including allegations of vote buying and illegal funding contributions. Sharon himself has been implicated in the latest revelations, which have seen an investigation launched into a $1.5 million loan given to Sharon’s sons by a South African businessman.

From a position of near certain victory at the start of the election campaign, Likud has slumped in the polls, with the latest survey showing that the party is almost level pegging with Mitzna’s left-leaning Labour party. Local daily newspaper Haaretz on 9 January predicted that Likud would win just 27 seats in the Knesset (parliament), down from an earlier forecast of 40 seats.

A decision by Israel’s Supreme Court on 9 January cleared the way for two of Likud’s staunchest political opponents to contest the elections. Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi had been banned at the end of December from standing for office by the election commission on the grounds that they supported Israel’s enemies.