Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon poured scorn on the 'roadmap' towards peace put forward by the quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia in a mid-January interview with US magazine Newsweek, saying that it should not be taken seriously. 'The quartet is nothing - don't take it seriously,' he is quoted as saying. The peace plan, the formal unveiling of which was postponed at the US and Sharon's behest until after the 28 January general election, envisages the creation of a Palestinian state in stages by 2005. Sharon, whose hardline stance plays well with many voters, said there could be no peace process until Palestinian violence has ceased. He also reiterated the demand that Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Yasser Arafat be removed from power before progress could be made, and set rigid conditions for Palestinian statehood: 'I am ready, if they have taken steps against terror, to recognise a fully demilitarised Palestinian state without final borders - having only police equipped with light weapons -Israel will control the external borders and will have the right to fly over the territory.' Under these circumstances, if there were to be no 'terror' whatsoever, a final decision on borders could be made, Sharon said. He accused the Europeans of being too biased in their attitude to be mediators in the conflict: 'When it [the European attitude] is balanced, you are most welcome to participate [in the peace process],' he said. Relations between Israel and the UK took a turn for the worse in early January when Sharon barred Palestinian representatives from travelling to a London conference organised by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Interviewed for the same magazine, Labour challenger Amram Mitzna said he believed most Israelis supported his conciliatory position, offering an immediate resumption of talks with whoever the Palestinians chose to represent them. However, despite this and the corruption scandals that have engulfed Likud and Sharon, Likud retains a strong lead in the polls.