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Understanding the obvious: U.S. policy toward Israel


Sometimes we fail to notice the most important and obvious facts, precisely because they are right before our eyes, or because they are unpleasant to acknowledge. There is one overriding fact about American policy toward Israel that has been ignored in this way. Anyone who seeks a basic understanding of American moves has to take it into account, and yet partisans of both sides have missed it, perhaps because it is so obvious, or perhaps because it is inconvenient for their pet ideas.

In 1975, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Iraqi foreign minister, in a secret meeting:

We can't negotiate about the existence of Israel, but we can reduce its size to historical proportions. I don't agree that Israel is a permanent threat. How can a nation of three million be a permanent threat? They have a technical advantage now. But it is inconceivable that peoples with wealth and skill and the tradition of the Arabs won't develop the capacity that is needed. So I think in ten to fifteen years, Israel will be like Lebanon-- struggling for existence, with no influence in the Arab world. (see Kissinger tells Iraqis, "We Can Reduce Israel's Size")

Exposure of this Machiavellian conversation produced shock in some quarters. Kenneth Stein was unable to say if this represented United States Policy or Kissinger's opinion or if Kissinger was simply trying to entice the Iraqis back into the US orbit. It should have surprised nobody.

Kissinger was expressing, in a cynical way, the core of US Middle East policy since 1967: to barter Israeli land for a peace deal, and to use US influence on Israel to gain influence in the Arab world. It was always the public policy of the United States, through administrations of both parties and under every presidency. In fact, it was also the openly declared policy of Israel in 1967.

Kenneth Stein agonized over whether or not Kissinger really meant what he had said:

Kissinger's statement to Hammadi that the U.S. envisioned Israel as becoming small and non-threatening like Lebanon may have been U.S. foreign policy, or his personal view, or ingratiating diplomacy, or some combination of the three...

But Stein also quoted a statement by Nixon to Syrian President Assad:

President Richard Nixon told Syrian president Hafez al-Assad that Washington was committed to seeing an "Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories" (cited by Stein as taken from "Letter from President Ford to Prime Minister Rabin, September 1, 1975," reproduced in Michael Widlanski, Can Israel Survive A Palestinian State? (Jerusalem: Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, 1990).

For some reason, Stein doubted if that too was the policy of the United States. However, both secret and public documents and utterances have made it clear that United States policy regarding Israel since the Six Day War was centered around the idea that the United States must get Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in order to satisfy the Arab states.

U.S. diplomats and legislators, beginning in 1967, bemoaned the fact that Israel had achieved the Six Day War victory without U.S. aid, and therefore the United States had no way to force its withdrawal. This is revealed, for example, in Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearings held on June 9, 1967:

It is a fact, is it not, that neither Soviet Russia nor the United States has given any material amounts of arms to Israel,  and, if that is true, are they not relatively independent in their thinking at this point?

Secretary Rusk. No, we have provided tanks and Hawk missiles and certain other kinds of equipment to Israel, but their principal arms supplier has been France...

The Israeli air force is almost all French supplied.

It should be clear that "reducing the size of Israel" was always a goal of the United States since June 1967. On May 23, 1967, President Johnson had made a statement regarding US commitment to the territorial integrity of all nations, seemingly with the intention of reassuring Israel.. Following the June war, this statement was repeated,  but now that Israel had conquered chunks of Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian territory, it took on a new meaning: The US would pressure Israel to withdraw from the conquered territories in return for peace. In a State Department telegram sent on June 12 to the US Embassy in Israel, the following wording was included:

As far as the attitude of the US is concerned, our principal points of departure are (a) President Johnson's reaffirmation on May 23 of long-standing American policy that "the United States is firmly committed to the support of the political independence and territorial integrity of all the nations of the area"; ...(c) the vital interest of the United States in its own relations with the Arab and Muslim world, a relationship in which Israel itself has an important stake...

Source: 273. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Israel/1/ Washington, June 12, 1967, 10:37 p.m. /1/Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27-14 ARAB-ISR. Secret; Nodis.

Ambassador Barbour replied on June 13 that he had apprised Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban of these positions:

As to United States points of departure I mentioned President's reaffirmation on May 23 of our commitment to support the political independence and territorial integrity of all nations in the area, the necessity to establish a regime of peace eliminating claims by either side of the right to infringe on the rights of others because of belligerency...

Source; 277. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State/1/ Tel Aviv, June 13, 1967, 1730Z. /1/Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27-14 ARAB-ISR. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Received at 3:16 p.m.

Yet again, from the same file, in response to Saudi and Aramco pressure on the U.S. regarding Israeli withdrawal, the following text was included in a telegram sent, also on June 13, from the U.S. State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia:

3. In connection problems growing out of recent Arab-Israel hostilities, you may call attention addressee governments to long-standing USG support for territorial integrity and political independence of all states of the Near East. This position was re-stated by President Johnson today. The USG desires the maintenance of friendly ties with all the countries of the region. In our view it is of the first importance for all to take steps now to assure that there is an end to the periodic hostilities and the state of belligerency which have marked Near Eastern history in the last two decades. The USG is fully prepared to join the other states to work for lasting arrangements which will serve permanently to reduce tensions in this region.

Source: 282. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Saudi Arabia/1/ [Washington, June 13, 1967, 9:54 p.m. /1/Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27 ARAB-ISR. Secret...]

And, from a later file of declassified documents, we have this statement:

The tough question is whether we'd force Israel back to 4 June borders if the Arabs accepted terms that amounted to an honest peace settlement. Secretary Rusk told the Yugoslav Foreign Minister: "The US had no problem with frontiers as they existed before the outbreak of hostilities. If we are talking about national frontiers--in a state of peace--then we will work toward restoring them. But we all know that could lead to a tangle with the Israelis.

Source:  455. Memorandum From the President's Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson/1/ Washington, October 3, 1967. /1/Source: Johnson Library, President's Appointment File, October 4, 1967. Secret; Nodis.

There was, therefore, every reason for both President Nixon and Henry Kissinger to make the statements they had made about Israeli withdrawal, and they were by no means expressing their private opinions, but rather the stated policies of the United States government. 

The Johnson administration, distracted by Vietnam was not able to begin any peace moves or force Israeli withdrawal. The Arab states under the leadership of Nasser were too intransigent to make even a show of peaceful intentions, and adopted the Khartoum resolutions. At the time, the United States had no leverage whatever on Israel, since it had not supplied the arms with which the Six Day War was won, and had in fact, reneged on its promise to support Israel's navigation rights when it was put to the test. In order to force Israeli withdrawal, the United States would first need to gain some leverage on Israel. The US adopted a two fold approach to regaining its standing in the Middle East. The first part was to make Israel dependent upon it for arms and diplomatic backing, while at the same time working for a permanent peace settlement and Israeli withdrawal. The "peace settlement" part would be satisfactory to the pro-Israel faction that was generally in charge in the White House, while the Israeli withdrawal part would satisfy the rank and file career diplomats of the State Department, who never were known for excessive love for Israel or people of the Jewish persuasion. The opportunity to pin down Israeli dependence on the US arose soon after the Six Day War, when the US supplied the first A-4 Skyhawk aircraft to replace Israel's war losses. The war of attrition soon escalated Israeli dependence, as the US had (albeit with seeming reluctance) begun to supply Phantom interceptors. This could be justified as necessitated by the need to confront Soviet aircraft and pilots which were flying missions for the Egyptians.

This policy could be marketed to supporters of Israel as a pro-Israel policy that sought peace, and would, as Kissinger noted even to the Iraqis, oppose the destruction of Israel. It could be marketed to Arab states and their supporters as US opposition to annexation of Arab territory, and "reduction of Israel's size," as Kissinger put it. The first, most complete public expression of the policy was the Harold H. Saunders testimony of 1975, which explicitly called for a settlement of the Palestinian issue through Israeli territorial concessions. Implementation of the policy was aided by the fact that Israel lost the backing of France, which meant that it had neither a diplomatic champion nor an arms supplier, and was greatly dependent on the US. Yitzhak Rabin, when he was ambassador to the US, understood and emphasized that US support for Israel was due only to the perception that such support served US strategic interests. The US supports Israel in order to use return of the territories conquered in the Six Day War to gain favor with Arab states. This policy worked admirably for many years.

By 1975, the US had gained the needed leverage on Israel by its role in the Yom Kippur War, in which it had agreed to resupply Israel through the air-lift. The Yom Kippur war made it clear to Israel that the scale of military engagements in the Middle East had altered radically since 1967, and that it could therefore no longer be militarily independent. The quantities of arms and materiel consumed in a few short days of fighting demanded an industrial capacity that could not be provided in a practical way by increasing the capacity of the Israeli military industries, and the technological innovations required were beyond the capabilities of Israel. Kissinger persuaded Nixon to resupply the Israelis in 1973, and Kissinger then used the leverage purchased by resupply to push for Israeli withdrawals in Sinai. Anwar Sadat was apparently the only one who had read the Middle East policy map correctly. He understood that if he could move Egypt into the American orbit and offer a "diplomatic horizon," he could get back the Sinai peninsula.

For the US, this policy yielded the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, US displacement of Russian influence in Egypt, and eventually, the Jordanian - Israeli peace treaty and the Oslo process. In a masterly stroke, President Carter cemented both Israeli and Egyptian dependence on the US with large foreign aid deals. Carter was ultimately frustrated because he couldn't "land the big one." Menachem Begin wasn't going to talk about Palestinian independence if he didn't have to. PLO opposition to the Egyptian peace move kept the West Bank and Gaza safe for Begin and settlerocracy. Carter chose to blame it all on Israel, but if the PLO had come through then, it is doubtful that even Begin would have had a choice.

It has been very important for the United States to maintain Israeli dependence. The torpedoing of the LAVIE interceptor project in the 80s was a great victory for US policy and another nail in the coffin of Israeli political independence, although perhaps not an essential one.

In the 1980s and after the first Iraq war, the administration of the other George Bush tried to continue the land for peace policy. They thought they had a "go," first with the so-called "Jordanian option" that was torpedoed by the Shamir government, and then with the breakthrough acceptance of Resolution 242 by the Palestinians in 1988, implicitly recognizing the right of Israel to exist. Each attempt to kindle a peace process clashed head on with the obstinacy of Itzhak Shamir, who pretended he didn't understand what it was all about. Shamir was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to the Madrid conference.

The election of Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister renewed the prospects for peace. Rabin understood the implications of US policy and always had understood them. The break up of the USSR and the brilliant victory of the US in the first Iraq war, as well as the relative weakness of the PLO, made all the omens favorable. The result was peace with Jordan and the start of the Oslo process. Successive Israeli Prime Ministers since Rabin have also understood the ultimate fate of Israeli settlement project, though Benjamin Netanyahu tried to fight it.

What Kissinger told the Iraqis was apparently, a slightly "adapted" version of actual US policy. If it was shocking to some people, it is because they never understood and didn't want to understand what had been declared plainly many times. The same policy has been spelled out again quite recently by George Bush in his speech on the Middle East, and more recently by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an interview with Sawa television. Israel will have to withdraw from the West Bank.

Some conclusions are obvious from the above. In effect, the entire 40 year year period since the Six Day war has been a full featured version of the little episode of the 1956 Suez Campaign, in which Israel was quickly forced to return conquered territory in return for flimsy guarantees that proved worthless. This time however, the U.S. seem to have resolved that it would not pressure Israel unduly until and unless it could extract a peace agreement from the Arab side. But if such agreements were forthcoming, Israel would need to return all, or most of territories.

The Israeli government always knew the score, even if it tried to forget it. Initially, Israel was in earnest about returning all or most of the land conquered in return for peace. Following the Khartoum resolutions however, and later, after the infamous UN Zionism is Racism resolution, it appeared safe to assume that Arab peace partners, other than Egypt, would never present themselves, and that Israel could take it for granted that the US would look the other way while Israel built settlements and created "facts on the ground," ignoring the hypothetical day of reckoning that might come if and when the Arabs side ever opted for peace. From the point of view of the supporters of settlement, American support for Israel was a Faustian deal, and they would rather not think that one day the devil might come to get his due.

The "territorial integrity" and "land for peace" policy of the US has been largely ignored by many pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian analysts and statesmen, despite the fact it is a matter of public record. For Greater Israel enthusiasts, there was no point in emphasizing the huge gamble involved in pouring billions of dollars into the settlements. Likewise, when it is out of power, it is very convenient for the Israeli right to label any Israeli politician who is in power, and must offer concessions in line with U.S. policy, as a traitor or at least a wimp.

The penny-ante pundits on the sidelines do not understand this game. When a Sharon or Netanyahu actually gets into power, the amateur kibbitzers expect that they are going to do something different. They will annex the West Bank perhaps, or rebuild the Temple. When this doesn't happen, because it can't happen, the pundits of the right cry "traitor" and "incompetent" and "corrupt" at their own previously adored leaders, and turn to more extreme politicians.

The process began with Menachem Begin, who was unalterably opposed to surrendering a single clod of earth, as he repeated many times, and was promptly roped in to giving up all of the Sinai peninsula. "From here," as Sharon was later to remark upon assuming office, "it does not look the same as it did from there."

The stalwart of the right, Benjamin Netanyahu, was singing a somewhat different tune by the time he got to the Wye River Memorandum. The Sharon bogeyman in office became the architect of disengagement. It will be observed that even Avigdor Lieberman in the cabinet, looks quite a bit different than he did when he was in the opposition. He does not object to negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas too strenuously. Nobody has remarked on the absurdity of the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu out of office, is now to the right of Avigdor Lieberman. It is all determined by the obvious need of the Israeli government to fall in line, more or less, with US policy.

For standard anti-Zionists of all kinds, it is very convenient to point to the large amounts of foreign aid given to Israel. Of course, that aid is given to ensure that Israel will remain compliant with US wishes, and prevent a repetition of the Six Day War scenario, which was a nightmare for the US State Department after all. Out of noplace seemingly, an independent regional player had appeared, and was in a position to dictate the course of affairs. An imperialist power cannot allow that.

For Arab, anti-U.S. rhetoricians, it is hardly convenient to point out that the US has a vested interested in peace in the Middle East, and much more profitable to claim that the US is pro-Israel, a claim that US statesmen and politicians must back up for reasons of domestic politics, as well as to keep the confidence of the Israeli government. Everyone in the US government probably remembers the unfortunate announcement of Robert McCloskey, prior to the Six Day War, that the US would remain neutral in thought word and deed, and nobody wants to repeat that fiasco. But the truth is, that stripped of niceties, the policy that President Bush enunciated in his recent Middle East speech is not much different from the policy that Kissinger explained to the Iraqi foreign minister: Land for peace. The land is real enough. The nature of the peace is open to negotiation. As Kissinger also remarked at the time

:I have told friends that peace isn't a final end. Wars begin elsewhere between countries that are at peace.

. That was a pretty broad hint. If the US can get peace, it will force Israeli withdrawal, and it will not examine this peace too closely to see if it is permanent.

The realities of the Middle East have changed in the past forty years, though U.S. policies and perceptions have not. This creates problems for the U.S. In this period, a stubborn lobby in support of settlements grew up in Israel. Their opposition to peace and concessions was seemingly validated to many Israelis by the breakdown of the Oslo process, and by the disastrous aftermath of disengagement.

At the same time, the cause of disaffection with the United States among Muslim countries, and Arab countries among them, is no longer only support for Israeli retention of territories. Rather, because of the rise of radical Islam, it is becoming more and more the case that the Israeli presence in the Middle East is branded as a Western colonial implant. Any peace that is sponsored by the United States, no matter what the settlement, is by definition a disaster for the local enemies of the United States. Therefore, trying to make peace between Israel and the Muslim/Arab world is no longer the panacea for America that it was in past decades. In addition, European countries, Russia and China stand ready to take up the slack where American influence wanes. Russia no longer has the odium of atheistic communism associated with it, whcih deterred conservative regimes in the past.

An additional complication is that Americans have become increasingly entangled in Iraq. In their desperation, some delude themselves into believing that making peace between Israel and the Palestinians will somehow help their cause in Iraq. This idea was apparently injected into the Iraq Study Group report by expert advisor Ray Close. For Middle Easterners, Americans are inscrutable occidentals. It is impossible to understand why Americans would think Al Qaeda, Shi'a or Sunni extremists would really be touched to the core of their humanitarian souls and stop blowing up mosques because the Palestinian problem was "settled." Rather, these extremists are bending every effort to ensure that the only acceptable "settlement" of the problem would be eradication of Israel. Any genuine moves toward peace would cause them to redouble their explosive efforts, and any settlement that left a Jewish state intact would be portrayed as "betrayal" of the Palestinian people.

Ami Isseroff

Post script: I usually don't comment on discussions in a Web Log, but this one is of special interest. No Bill Narvey, I don't advocate annexing the West Bank. In terms you might understand, I will say that if God wanted Israel to annex the West Bank, He would not have put so many Arabs there. Self determination must apply to both peoples. I have never changed my views on that and I never will. It is a matter of principle. If Israel wants allies, it will have to seek the road of peace. The dependence on the USA is part of the price that Israel is paying for keeping the territories.

And for Mr. Barzetta, what Israel has that you apparently need is knowledge. You are an ignorant bigot.

Mr. Barzetta is an important lesson for Israelis who think all Americans will love us forever. There are many Barzettas in the State Deparment and elsewhere. I left his racist comment as an exhibit for those who insist that anti-Semitism is just a figment of Jewish paranoia. The Jews, as Ben-Gurion said, are a paranoid nation that is persecuted.

And Brian. I am Jewish, and not an Arab. My country is real, but it is Israel and not Israel. And there aren't tweny million Jews in USA!

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000609.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 6 comments

As usual, Arabs cite the distant past to support their arguments about the Great Satans, Isreal and the US. Fact is, your people have been defeated. They will be defeated again. Furthermore, when liberalism and retardation start to fade out of the general populace again, your people will find the same plight as the Red Indian in America. Might as well start building casinos now. It is not to offend. It is to inform that I say this. If you gain an upperhand on Israel, twenty million American Jews will be en route with rifles, grenades, armor and planes. Myself included. That is only if the US does not intervene, in which case, I am American and I would fight with my American brethren. So, all I can say further is, despite all of your knit pickings of what US policy towards Israel means, based on quotes from Henry Kissinger, your peoples fates have been drawn in the sand. When the smart and just of your peoples stand up and condemn these evil men that roam among you, you may yet have a chance to survive. Israel will survive...it is Arabs who might get themselves eradicated.

Posted by Brian @ 07/28/2007 08:12 PM CST


An interesting history of the permanence of US thinking for some 40 years.

Still, if such policy was as permanent as you say, however the changes in the world and in the US administrations, it means it relies on basic facts that didn’t change. Any idea what those are?


Posted by Paul Fays @ 07/28/2007 11:19 PM CST

The only thing missing from Ami Isseroff’s excellent analysis is passion.

With what he has reported on surely he must have at least some sense of anger.

Surely he feels some need at least to wake Israelis up to what he has been wakened to.

Surely he must feel some need to call on Israelis to join him in openly expressing outrage against America and Pres. Bush for the way the Americans have callously played Israel all these years to further America’s best interests at the expense of Israel's.

It would be interesting to know whether, Ami Isseroff, seized with theis knowledge and insight that he has, has been moved to change his views in any way as regards the Road Map two state solution.

Surely Ami Isseroff is ready to call for annexation of the West Bank by Israel as is Moishe Feiglin and Ariyeh Eldad or that Israel should play its own game to not concede one more inch to the Palestinians regardless with the ultimate goal of manipulating circumstances to reach a most propitious time to annex the West Bank when it is most likely to succeed.

To carry on along that Road Map path to give the West Bank away to Palestinians, hard won in a defensive war in 1967, in step with America's best interests, is to concede defeat to the Arabs/Palestinians, who have given nothing in return for all they have thus far received and will give nothing in return if they receive more.

Posted by Bill Narvey @ 07/30/2007 12:20 AM CST

Israel has nothing America needs to protect or fight for. Arab countries have oil.

So, we embrace Muslims - and support their right to control the middle east. With arms and American forces, if necessary.

Jews start the majority of wars, and they will one day take a step to far - and be annilated.

Posted by Joseph barzetta @ 08/08/2007 06:10 PM CST

Joseph, what wars would that be? And who is this 'we' you speak of? Who will be doing the annihilating?

Posted by Ariel @ 08/12/2007 01:35 AM CST

Brian there are about 5.5 million Jews in America.

Posted by Ariel @ 08/13/2007 03:48 PM CST

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