Secretary of State Colin Powell meets Thursday with a delegation of three Palestinian cabinet ministers. It will be the highest level U.S.-Palestinian discussion since President Bush, in his June 24 Middle East policy statement, effectively ended U.S. dealings with Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinian team includes Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yahiya and Economy Minister Maher el Masri, both of whom are recent appointees closely identified with Palestinian reform efforts.
But on the eve of the meeting with Mr. Powell, the delegation leader Saeb Erekat, a longtime adviser to Mr. Arafat, stressed his allegiance to the Palestinian Authority chief and warned the alternative to his leadership would be "chaos."
Mr. Erekat, the minister for local government in the re-shuffled cabinet, told Washington reporters he will urge the Bush administration to back up its call for Palestinian statehood within three years with an implementation mechanism and specific time-line for getting there.
He also warned that Israel's security crackdown in Palestinian areas has put the very survival of Palestinians at risk, and can only extend the Middle East cycle of violence.
"This state of siege in the West Bank and Gaza, being the biggest prison in history, must end immediately. This will not bring security solutions to Sharon. This will only add to the complexities. This will add fuel to the fire. And this will feed this vicious cycle. That's the most important element: that the international community just cannot hide behind anything and any pretext while 3.3 million people's existence is really threatened," Mr. Erekat said.
Officials here note that Mr. Yahiya, the interior minister, has been a key figure in talks with Israel that Wednesday yielded an agreement in principle for a pull-back of Israeli troops from some areas in return for a Palestinian crackdown on militants.
A State Department spokesman said the administration is encouraged by the tentative deal and considers the direct contact between the sides as "extremely important." He said Mr. Powell looks forward to getting a first-hand assessment of the talks from the Palestinian team.
Before seeing the Secretary of State, the delegation will have a separate meeting Thursday morning with White House National Security adviser Condoleeza Rice.
The talks continue Friday with meetings with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and the Deputy Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Fred Shieck.
The U.S. aid agency issued a report Monday in conjunction with the charitable group CARE which said that malnutrition among Palestinian children had reached emergency levels due to Israeli curfews and closures that have restricted commerce and food supplies.
In his talk with reporters, Mr. Erekat called on the Bush administration to "do something about its own findings" and press Israel to end the occupation.