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The Apostasy of Ehud Olmert


The process of awakening to reality, aka the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, will take many years, and it has many aspects. Last week there were two major breakthroughs. They are unofficial breakthroughs to be sure, but very important ones. Palestinian political figures agreed to the Geneva Accord, which essentially gives up on the right of return of Palestinian refugees and recognizes the state of Israel.

On the Israeli side, Ehud Olmert, a pillar of the Likud party, former mayor of Jerusalem and currently Deputy Prime Minister, announced his support for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from significant portions of the occupied territories. He doesn't support this policy because he loves Palestinians or is preparing to join the Tanzim. Olmert supports this policy because he has finally heard what we of the left have been saying for thirty years. The purpose of Zionism is to create a national home for the Jews. If Israel keeps the territories it will have a majority of Arabs within its borders. It will cease to be a national home for the Jews. We cannot build our future either on schemes of transferring Palestinians out of Israel or on gerrymandering them out of their rights. It is wrong and it won't work. If we cannot find a peace partner, unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories becomes the only viable option.

Olmert told Yedioth Ahronot reporter Nahum Barne'a in an interview last weekend:

"We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say: we have been won over. We agree with [National Union leader Avigdor] Liberman. There is no room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All that we want is the right to vote.

"The day they do that, is the day we lose everything. Even when they carry out terror, it is very difficult for us to persuade the world of the justice of our cause. We see this on a daily basis. All the more so when there is only one demand: an equal right to vote.

"The thought that the struggle against us will be headed by liberal Jewish organizations who shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa scares me."

Barne'a asked Olmert about a proposal of the Israeli right to give the right to vote to Israeli emigres wherever they are or to all the Jews around the world. He replied.

"All these smart-alecky solutions," Olmert says, "will not rescue us from a boycott, isolation, and other scenarios that I prefer not to go into.."

The essence of Olmert's position is that there is no chance of reaching an agreement, and that being the case, Israel will soon be faced by a choice between partial withdrawal and total war. He said:

"Had I believed that there is a real chance of reaching an agreement, I would have recommended making an effort. But that is not the case. The choice we will be facing will be between less than a Geneva Accord -- which means a return to the 1967 border, the crushing of Jerusalem, and a struggle to our last breath to ward off the international pressure to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees into the shrinking State of Israel -- and a comprehensive unilateral move, and I stress the word comprehensive. Through such a move we will define our borders, which under no circumstances will be identical to the Green Line and will include Jerusalem as a united city under our sovereignty."

The shock value of Olmert's statements is increased by the fact that Olmert is a member of the Likud party, formerly Herut, and an inheritor of the ideological bible of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menahem Begin, defenders of Greater Israel and no dismantling of settlement. The shock value is increased by the fact that several Herut/Likud members including Tzippi Livni and Dan Meridor support Olmert. He is not going to be excommunicated. As for Ariel Sharon, who is often pictured abroad as the Jewish version of Godzilla, Sharon was never a member of Herut or a student of Jabotinsky, but rather a scion of the Labor party. It is probable that he supports Olmert, and it is even possible that Sharon put Olmert up to it, to advance the idea of unilateral withdrawal, which Sharon himself has said the advocates.

It should not escape our notice that just previously, Sharon was talking about unilateral concessions, and just before that, as we may recall, Shinui party leader Tomi Lapid was pushing a plan for Israeli withdrawal from the isolated Netzarim settlement in Gaza. Nor should we forget that not so very long ago, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna campaigned on a platform of unilateral withdrawal, not too different from these ideas of Olmert. Mitzna's ideas were branded dangerous to Israel by the right, and Mitzna lost the election by a large margin. When Olmert and Sharon voice the same ideas however, they are likely to get a better hearing. Much of the value of such proposals lies in who backs them, rather than actual content.

Unlike the Geneva Accord, for better or worse, Olmert's ideas are very likely to become the policy of the Israeli government. Right-wing Israelis claimed that the plan was suicidal. Posters of Olmert in Nazi uniform, a sort of badge of political sanity, appeared all over Jerusalem. But the reality is something else.
Olmert intends to withdraw in such a way as to preserve demographic balance. Presumably, Israel will withdraw from all of Gaza, and from populous parts of the West Bank, and the Palestinians can do what they want there. It will probably leave the Palestinians with about 60% of the land more or less, in non-contiguous lumps It is hard to see how they can form a state or carry on any sort of orderly life in these enclaves. Very probably, the Israeli withdrawal would not be so different from what Sharon would offer the Palestinians as an interim provisional state to be established under the road map. It is questionable whether a "solution" of that type would really stave off the pressures that Olmert discussed. After all, the world was not fooled by South African Bantustans. If the Palestinians cannot set up a viable state in the land that Israel cedes, Israel will be subject to the same boycotts and pressures that Olmert mentioned.

However, the basic idea is that Sharon has to show some progress toward peace in order to deflect mounting pressure from the US, and has to get the Intifada ended and off the national agenda. As there is less and less hope of doing this through the road map, and as pressure rises for a solution, politicians of the right are looking to unilateral solutions as a way of putting the conflict in deep freeze and moving on. However, with or without unilateral steps, the Greater Israel lobby is going to have to come to terms with the idea that keeping the occupied territories indefinitely is just not an option.

Ami Isseroff

Olmert Parts from the Territories
Yedi'ot Aharonot Weekend Magazine
December 5, 2003, pages 2- 4

Nahum Barne'a interviews Ehud Olmert (Israeli deputy prime minister, minister of trade and industry, and communications)

When the comments Ehud Olmert made to me two days ago in his Jerusalem office are stuffed into newspaper headlines, there is a strong desire to rub your eyes. The Deputy Prime Minister and the person closest to the prime minister today, both in the government and in the Likud leadership, is actually calling for unilateral evacuation of most of the occupied territories and parts of East Jerusalem, and the partition of the land of Israel into two states, with the border between them determined not by politics, national sentiment, or religious tradition, but by demography.

At this stage, he is not prepared to give details about the [border] lines of his map, but the principle he has adopted hints at a far-reaching outline: the border will be drawn in such a way that 80 percent of the inhabitants of Israel will be Jews and 20 percent will be Arabs. These numbers are very close to Israel's current population mix without the territories. If the numbers are translated into territory, the border that Olmert has in mind must run in most parts along the Green Line. The large settlement blocs will apparently remain, and the rest will be evacuated. Israel will withdraw not only from most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also from the outlying Arab neighborhoods within the [current] municipal limits of Jerusalem. And all this will be done unilaterally without having an accord with the other side to wave in exchange.

For the Likud, this is heresy, a huge political gamble that turns him into the enemy of the camp that is closest to him in his party. To NRP activists and the Judaea and Samaria rabbis, this is treachery. Olmert spent his early years in politics in a party whose slogan was "not (to give up) one inch." He has come a long way from that to this interview.

Last Monday morning, Olmert was in the Sde Boqer College in the Negev, before the graves of Paula and David Ben-Gurion. Sharon was sick, and Olmert was called in at the last moment to take his place as speaker for the government at the annual memorial ceremony. "Ben-Gurion's greatness was not only his ability to raise the vision of generations to new heights, but also to limit it to what was possible in the circumstances of the time. That is the dilemma facing every great leader, who has the supreme responsibility for the fate of his people resting on his shoulders. On this, Ben-Gurion said:

"And supposing we could occupy all the western Land of Israel militarily, and I am sure we could. Then what? We will become one state. However, this state will want to be democratic. There will be general elections, and we will be a minority...when the question arose of having all the land without a Jewish state, or a Jewish state without all the land, we chose a Jewish state without all the land."

Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin visited the Ben-Gurion grave for the first time in his life (for Olmert it was the second time; 24 years ago when he was a MK he did an officer's course in the military reserves. His company was chosen to safeguard the ceremony. He was deployed in the security helicopter, which went up and down in Wadi Zin. The brave young cadet wretched his gut out.)

Last Sunday, Rivlin sat opposite Paula's grave, heard his vice prime minister's speech, and was shocked. He compared Olmert to his ultra-Orthodox relatives, who when they gave up religious observance went all the way: they not only travelled on the Sabbath, but they also ate pork. Rivlin can understand Sharon turning his back on the Land of Israel. For him, Sharon is a sworn Mapainik [Mapai is the historic name of the Israel Labor Party]. Olmert, however, was brought up in the Jabotinsky tradition.

Rivlin assumed that Olmert was starting a complex political maneuver. When the time comes for the Likud to decide who will head it after Sharon, Olmert will tell his friends: The views that I express are unacceptable to you. But they are acceptable to the majority of the public. If you want 19 Knesset seats, take Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu]. That you already did. But if you want 38 seats, and all the side benefits of power, choose me.

In other words, the only way that Olmert can be elected by the Likud is by saying what the Likud members do NOT want to hear. The opposite of populism. That is what Sharon did when he announced his support for a Palestinian state in the face of loud protests and whistles of protest by Likud Central Committee members. For Sharon it worked out very well.

Olmert dismisses this analysis completely. "I am too tormented by the issue to be playing political games," he says. "I leave the analysis to my political rivals and pundits. There are plenty of both."

80 Versus 20

"We are approaching the moment when Israel will have to make a strategic decision," Olmert says. "Worst of all, is that things we considered critical until a short time ago are losing their importance. For instance, the US Administration's support. Supposing the President says to us, I free you from any commitment to the road map, do what you want, and he adds to that aggressive rhetoric against Arafat, and backs it with generous foreign aid to Israel. How will that help us in the face of the expected Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the sea?

"Or terror. We all know that even if there is an agreement, even a Geneva-style accord, terror will continue. In other words, whether there is an agreement or not, it will not alleviate the terrible suffering the terror causes us within a reasonable time frame.

"We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say: we have been won over. We agree with [National Union leader Avigdor] Liberman. There is no room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All that we want is the right to vote.

"The day they do that, is the day we lose everything. Even when they carry out terror, it is very difficult for us to persuade the world of the justice of our cause. We see this on a daily basis. All the more so when there is only one demand: an equal right to vote.

"The thought that the struggle against us will be headed by liberal Jewish organizations who shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa scares me."

If the problem is only the right to vote, I said, right-wing elements have a solution. They suggest giving the right to vote to Israeli emigres wherever they are or to all the Jews around the world.

"All these smart-alecky solutions," Olmert says, "will not rescue us from a boycott, isolation, and other scenarios that I prefer not to go into.

"Had I believed that there is a real chance of reaching an agreement, I would have recommended making an effort. But that is not the case. The choice we will be facing will be between less than a Geneva Accord -- which means a return to the 1967 border, the crushing of Jerusalem, and a struggle to our last breath to ward off the international pressure to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees into the shrinking State of Israel -- and a comprehensive unilateral move, and I stress the word comprehensive. Through such a move we will define our borders, which under no circumstances will be identical to the Green Line and will include Jerusalem as a united city under our sovereignty."

"From where do you intend to withdraw?" I asked.

"I will not go into detail about the border," Olmert said. "I will merely say that it will be based on a maximization of the number of Jews and a minimization of the number of Arabs inside the State of Israel. I believe that will leave us with a proportion of 80 percent Jews and 20 percent Arabs. That way we can continue having a Jewish and democratic state.

"These borders will definitely not overlap the borders of the Land of Israel on which I grew up and was educated, and which I believed in most of my adult life."

Whoever says 80 versus 20, I said, must also withdraw from Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods.

"The principle that I raise," Olmert said, "allows for all sorts of maps. I will only say this: I was once asked what will happen if there is a Palestinian official presence in Al-Ayzariyah or Abu-Dis, which are located outside Jerusalem's jurisdiction. I replied: When the Old City is entirely in our hands, when the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives and Al-Shaykh Jarrah are in our hands, united Jerusalem is in our hands."

You did not mention, I said, neighborhoods like Isawiyah, Sur Bahir, Kafr Aqab, etc, which are within Jerusalem's jurisdiction.

"That's true," Olmert said. "I did not mention them."

You can, I said, follow the lead of previous governments and put off the decision on the Palestinian issue and begin contacts with Syria. Al-Asad said this week that he is ready.

"Absolutely not," Olmert said. "In the end we will have to reach an arrangement with the Syrians, but in our order of priorities that is less and less pressing. We are not being weakened in a daily friction with them. We do not have maintenance problems. We can wait.

"The State of Israel cannot simultaneously conduct two such complicated and demanding crises that have such an impact on our social fabric."

A withdrawal from the Golan Heights will enflame your voters less, I said.

"Feelings are important," Olmert said, "but not decisive. We have to do the right thing for the State of Israel. What is the point of weeding the lawn when a major conflagration is taking place in the center of our lives."

Did the fence affair not teach you how difficult it is to carry out a unilateral move, I asked. The Palestinians protested, the West was angry. And in Israel, both the right and the left were opposed.

"The solution that I am talking about," Olmert said, "will demand a heavy price from us, first domestically. There is no doubt that it will entail also a very tough international struggle, but such struggles are preferable to the struggles that we are facing now.

"First, my solution will define a clear, achievable goal that will be decided by us and does not depend on the goodwill that our neighbors do not have. The internal price that will be demanded of us (the evacuation of settlements) increases the chance that the move will be received with understanding in the world, especially in the United States.

"I offer hope that is not anchored in a distant phantasy, but in reality. I offer a move that most parts of the country will join forces to define."

The people might support the move, I said, but your ministerial colleagues will think otherwise.

"When Arik talks about a Palestinian state, when the Government of Israel, with Liberman and Eytam, agree to the road map whose outline we cannot mistake where it is leading, that is not the Greater Land of Israel. That is inevitably a plan of partition and withdrawal.

"In my view, because of the Palestinians' unwillingness, there is no chance of implementing the road map. On the other hand, a courageous, comprehensive, unilateral, permanent move creates a chance. It also presents great hope."

Closely-Guarded Secret

Most politicians hate to make decisions. When they are confronted with a need to make a historic decision -- a Ben-Gurion type decision, Sharon used to tell his people -- they choose to postpone it, avoid it, waste time, let circumstances decide for them. Olmert belongs to a different breed of politicians. Give him a Gordian knot, and he will cut it. He is quick to decide, sharp, and outspoken. When his decisions cause anger, it does him a world of good, pumping adrenaline through his veins.

Last week he stunned Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom when he announced that Israel is removing its opposition to [the European demand that Israel] separate marking on goods produced in the territories. Shalom grumbled: We could have dragged the talks on this issue some more, and not given in so fast. He insisted on raising the issue in the cabinet, but was surprised to find that Sharon was fully backing Olmert.

Olmert is not Sharon's spokesman; he is his political ally. The things he says do not necessarily represent the wishes of the prime minister, but there is a lot of overlap in what the two say. Sharon drops hints, floats test balloons, while keeping escape routes open for himself. Olmert homes in on the same target, but rushes forward, trying to sweep the prime minister with him. He is in a hurry.

"Let me tell you a closely-guarded secret," Olmert said. "I am saying all this without having had a big, serious conversation with Arik first. At the same time, I have no doubt that Arik, contrary to the criticism leveled at him, is thinking about these issues and deliberating the same questions."

Many are convinced, I said, that all of Sharon's talk about painful concessions is merely meant to create a media spin.

"We never had a prime minister who made a greater intellectual and emotional leap than Sharon did in going from the settlements to the road map," Olmert said.

Not even Begin? I asked.

"No. Begin believed that the autonomy does not conflict with the wholeness of the land of Israel. Arik has crossed that line. Some will not forgive him, but I am certain that history will appreciate his courage on this issue as well."

Are you saying, I asked, that Jabotinsky was wrong, and Begin was wrong, and Shamir was wrong?

"All of them were right," Olmert said. "The Land of Israel is ours and only ours. Still, my mother and father immigrated here in 1933, coming from faraway China, to live in a Jewish and democratic state, not in a binational state.

"I never claimed that I know what Jabotinsky, Begin, or Shamir would have said today. The attempt to rewrite their ideas is presumptuous and disrespectful. The fact is that when history placed Menahem Begin at the top of the national pyramid, he did not do what he had been dreaming about all his life. He did not impose our sovereignty on the entire land. He was wise and responsible and a democrat."


When did the switch in your positions start? I asked.

"I have been living with it for several years now," Olmert said. "The past three years, particularly the past year, sharpened the fact that time is pressing.

"Actually, the amazing achievements that Sharon scored vis-ŗ-vis the US Administration helped the picture become clear. Had Arik been in conflict with the US President, our difficulties could have been attributed to a hostile administration. The fact is, however, that we live in a world that rallied entirely around the war against Islamic terror. Arafat's status is at an all-time low. He is also rejected in Europe. The gut feelings of the US President are the same as those of the extreme right wing among us. Still, despite that, there is a growing agreement around the world that Israel must shrink back to the borders of 1967, perhaps even less than 1967. And the cloud of demography is hovering above all of that. It will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just a few years.

"You ask me, what is the difference between myself and the leftists? Well, there is a world of difference. For me, Bet El, Ofra, and the mountains of Judaea and Samaria are the Land of Israel. They do not belong to the Palestinians and never did. It is not their history. These are not their memories.

"The very thought that we will have to give up one bit of land truly breaks my heart. It is not a slogan. I am not Jumes [Meretz MK Hayim Oron], who said he has visited the Tower of David only twice in his life.

"You will never find a Palestinian who would talk about the land like that, despite the fact that they have no historic linkage with this land. Our left has neither national pride nor a Jewish backbone. I am ashamed of them."

What are you saying, actually? I asked. Are you telling me that you will do exactly what the left wants to do, only your heart will ache more?

"I am referring to the emotional gap," Olmert said. "Besides, under no circumstances will I be in favor of going back to the 1967 borders and forsaking Jerusalem."

What do you think life here would be like after the one-sided withdrawal? I asked.

"After the initial 'boom,' which might be quite violent, terror will diminish significantly. There will be a wall between them and us. I will be in favor of economic cooperation between the two states, with international aid. There will be industrial parks. We will have to create a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank under Palestinian control.

"Eventually, there will be a Palestinian state there, without depriving us of our right to guarantee our security. For example, we will not let them bring in tanks."

But if no agreement is made, the Palestinian dream to return to Yafo, Haifa, and Beersheba will remain, I said.

"Anyone who heard the speeches that the Palestinian knights of Geneva delivered cannot escape the conclusion that their dream will remain in any event. What I am suggesting is minimizing its chances of ever being realized."

The proposal you are suggesting, I said, requires a different cabinet. The National Union and the NRP will not be able to live with it, and several Likud ministers will not be able to accept it either.

"I suppose that the things I am saying do raise several questions about the stability of the government, the internal stability of the Likud, and relationships in Israeli society as a whole. We will have to deal with that, but first we have to decide what our real priorities are."

What do you think would happen if the status quo in the territories continues? I asked.

"It will lead to Israel's demise as a Jewish state," Olmert said. "I told you that I have not yet had that crucial discussion with Sharon, but I cannot forget that in every discussion held so far, Sharon has always said: I am first and foremost a Jew. At the fateful point, when the entire burden of history will be on his shoulders, this will be the key. I am a Jew in order to live in a Jewish state. We did not fight here for 100 years, we did not shed our blood to lose the Jewish state."

If you are so worried about the question of a Jewish majority, I said, you could have supported the massive deportation of Palestinians. Quite a few Israelis feel this is the solution.

"We do not have the ability, the power, and -- first and foremost -- the desire to do that," Olmert said. "I have no moral ground to expel a person from the house he was born in. I am telling you that the State of Israel will disintegrate crash before the first truck ever crosses the Jordan River.

"The choice we must make is between the line Beilin is presenting and the rightist line I am presenting. These are the two options. There are no other options. My suggestion will preserve a central part of the settlement enterprise, which I admire and to which I am tied. Beilin's suggestion will poison the state. The fact that he and his friends are willing to hand over Temple Mount is unforgivable."

Divine Providence

It must be clear to you, I said, that you are going against the Likud majority.

"I suggest that we look into that when we reach the moment of decision," Olmert said. "I am not certain that the way registered Likud members would divide would be different from how they voted in a similar situation in the past. Most of them supported Sharon when he said he is for a Palestinian state.

"There are people who do not like me regardless of the views I expressed here. They are angry at the way I operate, my struggle on the issue of farming lands, the way I protect Israeli exports to Europe, or the decisions I made on the media industry. What can I do? I am not the type of person who wakes up in the morning and first checks to see which way the wind is blowing.

"I believe that divine providence gave an opportunity for which I have worked all my life: To be where responsibility it taken, to take a stand, and try to define the historic direction, to decide the fate of the nation. I know that my words sound big, pompous perhaps, but why is a person appointed to serve as acting prime minister? Is he supposed to waste his time on petty calculations of 1 percent more or 1 percent less support in the Central Committee? I am a man of decisions, and perhaps I am more connected with the reality I must face than some of my friends."

And perhaps you are in too much of a hurry to make decisions, I said. Your willingness to give in on the affair to mark goods reminded me of the story about a lawyers' son who took one day to solve a problem that his father made a living from for 30 years.

"People who say that do not know just how close we were to a confrontation with the EU that could have been lethal for the economic stability of the State of Israel. When I talked to the European trade commissioner, I told him: To me, every industrial plant in Judaea and Samaria is part of the Land of Israel. Even if you impose taxes on the goods, it will still be part of the Land of Israel.

"Had I not acted the way I did, you would have accused me of harming the state's economic might and endurance for the sake of empty rhetoric."

You are currently very distant from your friend Uzi Landau, I said.

"I often ask myself," Olmert said, "what is happening to me? Am I detached from reality, or are some of my friends living in an imaginary world that has nothing to do with what is really happening?"

They will claim that you have no faith, I said. Our fathers came here under much harsher conditions and still they built a state.

"Our fathers lived in a totally different world. They did tremendous things. Our duty is to preserve the core of their greatest achievement, the greatest achievement of the Jewish people after the destruction of the temple: the sovereign existence of a strong Jewish state in the Land of Israel."

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