[With thanks to IMRA for calling this to our attention.]

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) said President Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar) remains in charge despite a US and Israeli refusal to deal with him, and said his stamp of approval should precede any political action.

“Arafat is at the top of the (Palestinian National) Authority (PNA). He’s the man to whom we refer, regardless of the American or Israeli view of him,” Abbas said in an interview with Egypt’s semi-official al-Mussawer weekly.

“For us, Abu Ammar is the president elected by the Palestinian people and he is the chairman of the whole Palestinian Authority. We do not do anything without his approval,” Abbas said, referring to Arafat by his nom de guerre.

Abbas came to power last month amid intense US pressure for Palestinian reforms. Washington, echoing Israeli propaganda slogans, accuses Arafat of doing too little to rein in what both countries label as “terrorists” and “militants.”

“I will not allow any serious differences between Arafat and me,” Abbas told al-Mussawar’s editor-in-chief Makram Ahmed in Gaza. “There may be day-to-day differences… But there will be no serious problems that lead to ‘divorce’.”

Abbas reiterated his backing and respect for Arafat, who symbolizes the struggle for independence for most Palestinians and Arabs. The prime minister said he would not travel abroad until the president was also allowed full freedom of movement.

“I cannot imagine how can there be different treatments for me and for Abu Ammar,” he said, referring to Israeli restrictions on Arafat’s ability to travel.

Earlier this month, Abbas held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the highest-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting in more than two years.

Abbas said they discussed the US-backed “roadmap” peace plan but Palestinian and Israeli views were far apart.

While the Palestinians have accepted the initiative, Israel has raised several reservations and is still targeted by the “Quartet” of international peace mediators, including the United States, to officially declare its acceptance of the “roadmap.”

“We as Palestinians are determined to accept the roadmap as we received it. But Sharon insists on accepting the ‘principles’ of the roadmap,” Abbas said. “The two stances are totally different.”

Last week Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shaom announced that it was “impossible” for Israel to accept the “roadmap” without amendments.

Shalom also was quoted Wednesday as telling Israeli parliament members that he would favour expelling Arafat.

In remarks broadcast over Israel Radio, Shalom said, “My position regarding the expulsion of Arafat has not changed,” since he spoke out in favour of his removal two years ago.

Shalom hinted at a possible Israeli change of heart towards Abbas, whom Israel has been promoting as a replacement to Arafat.

If PM Abbas “does not do what is needed” to end a string of attacks on Israeli targets, “he will find himself in a short time ending up like (President Yasser) Arafat,” Shalom said.

The European Union has spurned a recent Israeli move to undermine the leadership of Arafat and announced on Tuesday that it would continue meeting the Palestinian leader, despite an Israeli threat to boycott foreign officials who meet Arafat.

“Contacts that we feel are necessary we will make and this will very often include President Arafat, as of course Prime Minister Abu Mazen,” said the Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who met with the Palestinian President in his besieged Ramallah headquarters last week.

“We don’t think this is an issue which should become a centre stage issue. The problem is promoting the road map and we have to have the necessary contacts to do so,” Papandreou told reporters following a meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Athens Tuesday.

Similarly the Chinese special envoy to the Middle East Wang Shijie rebuffed Israel’s threat.

Shijie met with President Arafat Wednesday, despite Israel’s threats.

“The aim is to push both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, forward with the peace process,” said Wang Shijie.

In an earlier meeting with Shalom, Shijie appealed to Israel and Palestine to stop the vicious circle of violence so as to pave the way for the resumption of peace talks.

Shijie said China welcomes and supports the “roadmap” for the Middle East peace, which is formulated by the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations.

On Wednesday also Egypt announced that it will not sponsor further inter-Palestinian dialogue to reach a truce with the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) until Israel declares its full acceptance of the “roadmap.”

Similarly, Jordan announced recently that it will not send the Jordanian ambassador back to Tel Aviv until the Jewish State’s government declares it acceptance of the Quartet’s peace plan.

Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states which concluded peace treaties with Israel.

President Arafat last week said that the Israeli escalating propaganda campaign of accusations against him aims at prolonging the siege imposed on him and at aborting serious efforts to achieve a real peace in the region.

“They (the Israelis) are launching a wide propaganda campaign against me with the aim of expanding the siege imposed on me,” he told reporters in Ramallah Monday.

“I am accused of many things, including terror attacks, but they forget that I made peace,” Arafat added.

This was issued on May 22, 2003