A senior Israeli official, speaking to AFP on Sunday, said: "We are prepared for a possible collapse in the Palestinian Authority that could risk seeing Mahmoud Abbas unable to impose law and order on the ground as well as within his own Fatah party.

"At this point, Mahmoud Abbas is so weak in relation to Hamas that he is unable to implement the smallest decision."

The powerful Hamas movement is gearing up to contest its first Palestinian parliamentary election on 25 January, posing a serious challenge to Fatah's decade-long grip on power.

The official accused the Palestinian leader of being content to point the finger at Israel. "We cannot always blame others for our own weakness," he said.

Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper on Sunday quoted senior military officials as saying that Abbas was at an all-time political low since succeeding Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004.

Sharon resumes work

Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, was preparing to return to a full schedule of work after recovering from a mild stroke he suffered last week.

Sharon was to meet ministers at 
cabinet on Sunday

Sharon was to meet ministers at a weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, his office said.

He was taken to hospital a week ago after complaining that he felt unwell. Doctors later said he suffered a mild stroke that had not caused any permanent damage. Sharon's blood pressure and cholesterol levels are normal even though he is overweight, the doctors told Israeli media.

Speculations about Sharon's weight have preoccupied Israelis, with the media reporting that it is between 117 and 142 kilogrammes. The mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot reported on Sunday that Sharon had lost a kilo since the stroke.

Sharon's doctors are scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday, Haaretz reported on Sunday.