Sharon, speaking on 4 December, said his plan was based on the vision for security outlined in the 24 June speech by US President Bush. ‘President Bush’s framework will be presented to the government I intend to form after the elections,’ he told a conference near Tel Aviv. ‘I will work with all my strength to make it as broad a unity government as possible.’

Under Bush’s framework, a Palestinian state would be established within parts of the West Bank and Gaza in 2003, with the definitive borders agreed by 2005. Sharon insisted that Palestinian statehood is conditional on ‘an absolute end to terror’ and would not proceed unless Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had been replaced.

Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat was one of the first Palestinians to reject the Israeli premier’s proposals. ‘Sharon is repeating his ideas of a long-term interim solution on 40 per cent of the West Bank and 70 per cent of the Gaza Strip,’ he said. ‘This will not fly.’ The proposals were also condemned by members of Sharon’s coalition government, including Effi Eitam, the ultra-hardline head of Israel’s National Religious party, who claimed on 5 December that a Palestinian state would pose a threat to Israel. Another far-right Knesset (parliament) member, Avigdor Lieberman, said the plan could be equated to the establishment of a terrorist state alongside Israel.

The right-wing Likud party, which re-elected Sharon as its leader on 28 November, is widely expected to win the January elections. A recent poll in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz found that 44 per cent of members of the opposition Labour party would support joining a government led by Sharon if Likud were to win.

As the parties jockey for support in the lead up to the elections, Labour’s newly-elected leader Amram Mitzna is under increasing pressure to adopt a more hawkish stance.

Mitzna, who advocates unilateral withdrawal from some Jewish settlements, is due to visit London soon. The Egyptian government has also approached the Labour party, looking at the possibility of inviting Mitzna to Cairo.