Letter from diplomats tells Bush: Middle East policy is 'dangerous'

More than 60 former US diplomats yesterday lambasted George Bush for running a one-sided Middle East policy, claiming that the President's open-ended support for Israel was costing the US "credibility, prestige and friends".

In a public letter to the President, inspired by a similar protest delivered to Tony Blair last week by 52 former British ambassadors, the diplomats call on the administration to return to being a "truly honest broker" in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and to "reassert American principles of justice and fairness".

"Your unqualified support for Israel's extra-judicial assassinations, its Berlin Wall-like barrier, and its harsh military measures in occupied territories" was costing the country its credibility, the letter said. It warned that current US policies were placing US diplomats, civilians and military overseas "in an untenable, even dangerous position."

As with their British counterparts, the last straw for the letter's signatories - many of them veterans of Middle East postings - was the 14 April meeting in Washington when Mr Bush endorsed the plan of Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, to hang on to five substantial settlement areas in the West Bank, and flatly rejected the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Describing what he called "an almost hopeless situation", Andrew Killgore, a former US envoy to Qatar, complained that Mr Bush had given his public support to Mr Sharon without talking to the "quartet" of the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, which devised the so-called "road-map" plan for a settlement.

"There was no need to go that far," Mr Killgore, the prime organiser of the letter, told a press conference yesterday. And there was "no competition" between the President and Senator John Kerry, his probable White House challenger in November, he said. "They're both very dedicated Zionists, it seems to me."

The protest, which will seek to attract further signatures before being formally sent to Mr Bush on 28 May, was made public as foreign ministers of the quartet met in New York and insisted that all final details of a peace agreement must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Europe particularly, there has been strong criticism of the Sharon plan - one of whose key elements, a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, was rejected at the weekend by Mr Sharon's own Likud party. Unlike the British diplomats' protest, the American letter contains only an oblique reference to Iraq. But another signatory, Carleton Coon, a former US envoy to Nepal, spoke of the "disaster" of the war in Iraq, which "might not have turned out so badly if we had been seen to support the rights of the Palestinians as well as of the Israelis".

The letter, with its complaint that Mr Bush and Mr Sharon have consistently excluded the Palestinians from negotiations, is believed to reflect the views of many serving US diplomats experienced in Middle East affairs. Even so it is unlikely to achieve much traction inside the Bush administration, where the State Department's clout is already limited, and where hardliners at the Pentagon and in the Vice-President's office usually prevail over Colin Powell, the Secretary of State.

Indeed, Edward Peck, a former senior US diplomat in Baghdad, said Mr Bush had been "misled" by his closest advisers. By endorsing Mr Sharon's proposals, he said, the President had effectively "ended the tripartite arrangement" of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, brokered by the US.

Though their numbers are growing, the US signatories are not as well known as their British counterparts. They must, moreover, make their voice heard in a country where public support for Israel is instinctive - and far stronger than in Britain. The Bush administration may be tempted simply to ignore the letter, arguing that the existing "road-map" envisages the creation of an independent Palestine, and that the failure to make progress is the fault of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Nor, in an election year, will either major party will do anything to upset the potent Israeli lobby. Mr Bush is probably the most pro-Israeli president in recent times (certainly more so than his father). But John Kerry, his Democratic challenger-designate this autumn, is a scarcely less ardent supporter of the Jewish state, promising that if elected president, he would never push Israel into peace agreements that were against its interest.

EXTRACTS FROM THE US DIPLOMATS' LETTER

"You have placed US diplomats, civilians and military doing their jobs overseas in an untenable and even dangerous position ..."

"By closing the door to negotiations with Palestinians and the possibility of a Palestinian state, you have proved that the United States is not an even-handed peace partner ..."

"Your unqualified support of Sharon's extra-judicial assassinations, Israel's Berlin Wall-like barrier, its harsh military measures in occupied territories, and now your endorsement of Sharon's unilateral plan are costing our country its credibility, prestige and friends ..."

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