Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice held separate meetings Thursday with three Palestinian cabinet members. They were the first such talks since President Bush halted U.S. contacts with Yasser Arafat in June. Mr. Powell said the Bush administration is pushing for early Palestinian action to improve security in the West Bank and Gaza.
The administration has long held that an end to acts of terror against Israelis is a prerequisite for reviving political talks on an Israeli Palestinian peace accord. And in comments after his more than hour-long meeting with the Palestinian team, Mr. Powell indicated that the security track dominated what were the highest level U.S.-Palestinian talks since his last Middle East mission in April.
"I reaffirmed to the ministers that the President is committed to doing everything possible to find a way forward," he said, "recognizing the difficulties that exist and condemning the violence that afflicts the region and occasionally thwarts our ability to move forward. But we will not be deterred, we will continue to move forward. We had a good discussion on security cooperation and some of the things we are trying to do in the very near future, and they will be having additional meetings here."
Mr. Powell gave no details on other meetings planned. But officials here said Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yahiya, in charge of security service in the new Arafat cabinet, will meet Saturday with CIA Director George Tenet, who has been heavily involved in efforts to restore Israeli-Palestinian Security cooperation.
The Palestinian team also includes Economy Minister Maher el Masri, who has been closely identified with Palestinian reform efforts, along with and longtime Arafat adviser Saeb Erekat, who is minister for local government affairs.
Mr. Erekat said the reform process is a Palestinian initiative and is not being dictated by outsiders.
He said the reforms would be helped by an end to the Israeli security crackdown, which he said has turned the West Bank and Gaza into the "biggest prison in history" and caused a humanitarian "catastrophe." He also said the Palestinian side pressed Mr. Powell to back up the administration's commitment to Palestinian statehood within three years with a plan of action:
"The end-game is specified with a Palestinian state. We really hope to see an action plan that will define the time-line, the mechanism for implementation, and the way-stations that will take up toward this end-game," he said. "We re-assured the Secretary of the Palestinian commitment to peace, to reviving the peace process, and to put it back on track, because that's in the real interest of Palestinians and Israelis."
The Palestinian team meets Friday with, among others, senior officials in the U.S. Agency for International Development, which issued a report Monday telling of serious malnutrition among Palestinian children. In advance of the meeting here, the State Department announced an additional $12-million in U.S. food aid to Palestinians.
Secretary Powell said he discussed the humanitarian issue Thursday in a phone conversation with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who told the Secretary he is sending Catherine Bertini, head of the U.N.'s World Food Program, to the West Bank and Gaza in the next few days to see what can be done to alleviate conditions there.