More than 50 former U.S. diplomats have made public an open letter protesting President Bush's Mideast policy, which they say is costing the United States its credibility and prestige.

The letter by the former diplomats expresses their concern about President Bush's current Middle East policy. The letter is critical of his public endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral decision to dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza and some parts of the West Bank and his rejection of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

One of the signatories, former U.S. ambassador to Greece, Robert Keeley, echoed the letter's warning that excluding the Palestinians from the negotiations on such critical issues has undermined the U.S. role as an honest broker.

?What we have now experienced is an agreement reached behind the backs of the Palestinians without any consultation with them,? he said. ?That ends any hope of the U.S. continuing to act as an honest broker since we have now irrevocably chosen to side with one side to the exclusion of the other.?

Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck, who also signed the open letter, said that the administration's approach to the Middle East is weakening U.S. credibility at a critical time in the region.

?We have short-circuited the system,? he noted. ?We have eroded enormously our already weakened credibility and I think we have put the people who live in that part of the world at serious risk for a long time to come.?

Reacting to news of the open letter, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a TV interviewer the beauty of democracy is that people can speak out even against the president without fear of retribution. But he added that he does not think it is especially significant one way or the other. He said that it is an example of democracy at work.

Former diplomat Andrew Kilgore said that he was inspired to circulate the letter for signatures after 52 former British diplomats sent a similar protest to Prime Minister Tony Blair last week. Mr. Kilgore publishes the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Mr. Kilgore does not know how it will be received by the White House, but he expressed hope it could influence public opinion.

?I don't know where this will end,? he said. ?We're not going to stop now though.?

Mr. Kilgore said that the letter has already been signed by more than 60 former ambassadors, retired military and civilian officials. His magazine will continue to collect signatures and will deliver the letter to the White House at the end of May.