Expert Middle East Perspectives

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THE ISLAMIC THREAT: MYTH OR REALITY? By John L. Espito, Oxford University Press, 243 pp., $22.; PASSION AND POLITICS: THE TURBULENT WORLD OF THE ARABS By Sandra Mackey, Dutton, 448 pp., $23.; THE PASSIONATE ATTACHMENT: AMERICA'S INVOLVEMENT WITH ISRAEL, 1947 TO THE PRESENT BY Georg Ball and Douglas Ball, W. W. Norton, 328 pp., $24.95.; THE NEW PALESTINIANS: THE EMERGING GENERATION OF LEADERS By John and Janet Wallach, Prima Publishing, 351 pp., $22.95.; SHIFTING LINES IN THE SAND: KUWAIT'S ELUSIVE FRONTI ER WITH IRAQ By David H. Finnie, Harvard University Press, 221 pp., $29.95.

A SPATE of excellent books on Islam and the Middle East puts the region's threats - and its hopeful developments - in perspective.

Few would quarrel with the thesis that Islamic fundamentalism is one of the most potent ideological forces in the post-cold-war era. In "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?" John Esposito examines whether, politically, Islam is a force for peaceful reform or violent revolution.

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Hijackings and hostage-takings have given militant Islam a bad name. So have fanatical and anti-Western leaders like Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. In Algeria and elsewhere, fundamentalists threaten incipient democratic movements.

Esposito says Islam does pose a challenge, if not an outright threat, to Western interests. But he argues that fundamentalism is neither as militant nor as monolithic as many Westerners suppose. His controversial but persuasive argument is that Islamic fundamentalism is an authentic, if not always benign, populist movement that has tapped into legitimate discontent produced by harsh economic conditions in the Islamic world.

Written by one of America's leading scholars on Islam, the book may be tough going for the layman, but it is well worth the effort to get a balanced view of the West's relationship with the Islamic world.

Whether Islam becomes another "evil empire" at war with the "New World Order," Esposito says, depends on whether the West can distinguish a "religious and ideological alternative" from a genuine threat and whether the governments of Muslim countries choose to tolerate or repress opposition fundamentalist movements.

"Passion and Politics: The Turbulent World of the Arabs" is another serious book for the specialist and industrious layman. Journalist Sandra Mackey explores the political makeup of an Arab world caught between the myth of unity and the reality of conflict.

One source of this often debilitating tension, she writes, is that Arabs have had a difficult time reconciling the nationhood imposed by colonial rulers with centuries of localism based on loyalties to families and clans. Another is the resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism, which Mackey describes as an "outpouring of Arab agony" over three centuries of Western domination.

Readers will find especially helpful five illuminating profiles of figures who have shaped the Arab world, including Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, who galvanized Arab nationalism, and Syria's Hafez al Assad, a potentially key figure in the historic transition now under way in Arab attitudes toward Israel.

The existence of the Jewish state in the Arab Middle East has long nourished Muslim extremism. It has also posed dilemmas for American policymakers who have tried to balance conflicting interests in the region.

One leading critic of Washington's relationship with Jerusalem has been former senior US diplomat George Ball. In his latest foray into the subject, "The Passionate Attachment: America's Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present," Ball and his son, Douglas Ball, provide a detailed survey of US-Israeli relations from the "tremendously inspiring achievement" of Israel's independence in 1948 through the Gulf war.

Under the protective umbrella of US support, they contend, Israel has expanded its borders at the expense of its Arab neighbors, dragged its feet on Middle East peacemaking, and even conducted espionage against the US. Acquiescing to pressure from the strong pro-Israeli lobby in the US, the US has compromised its human-rights principles and its own interests in the Middle East, the authors say, even while shelling out $53 billion in aid to Israel - more than the US spent on the Marshall Plan to reconstru ct post-World War II Europe.

One longs for some relief from one-sidedness in this literate and readable account. Even so, the book bears the burden of its main argument that the US has paid a price for its intimacy with the Jewish state.

John and Janet Wallach's "The New Palestinians: The Emerging Generation of Leaders" examines changing attitudes among Arabs living under Israeli occupation that have contributed to a climate conducive to peacemaking in the Middle East. They profile a dozen men and women thrust into the spotlight a year ago when Middle East peace talks began who are poised to assume top posts in a future Palestinian government.

The 12 people belie the menacing image created by Palestinian terrorists. While their parents were prepared to die to prevent the creation of Israel, they are prepared to accept it and pursue the dream of a Palestinian state through diplomacy. The profiles are engaging and intimate and provide a glimpse of why cautious hope has become a tenacious thing among students of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In "Shifting Lines in the Sand: Kuwait's Elusive Frontier With Iraq," a parting look at a past crisis in the region, attorney David Finnie gets to the bottom of a question that led to the outbreak of the Gulf war: Is Kuwait a separate country or, as Saddam Hussein still insists, Iraq's 19th province?

Driven by ambitions for a longer Gulf coastline and more oil, as well as a lust for conquest, Saddam seized Kuwait in August 1990 and was answered by an overwhelming show of Western force. In a meticulously researched volume, Finnie authoritatively lays to rest Saddam's legal arguments for the "comprehensive and eternal merger" of Iraq and Kuwait.

Although Kuwait was once part of Iraq, Iraq formally renounced its claim, sealing the deal by recognizing Kuwait as a fellow member of the Arab League and the United Nations. In the same year, Finnie writes, Iraq's prime minister formally recognized the position of Iraq's 120-mile-long border with Kuwait, putting the lie to Saddam's claim that the boundary was never determined.

A book for the specialist, Finnie's retracing of the complex triangular relationship between Iraq, Kuwait, and Britain - which once ruled both - answers through careful research what it took 500,000 soldiers to settle through force.

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