In the Middle East, the pursuit of lasting peace remains a complex and densely woven web of intrigue, negotiation and deception. These books examine the latest twists and turns.

In Sarah Graham-Brown's new book, Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq (I.B. Tauris, $35), she includes a particularly illuminating quote from a Western aid worker in Iraq: "We break their legs and give them crutches." Through her close contacts with international aid organizations (she is coordinator of the London-based Gulf Information Project), Graham-Brown knows only too well the inherently contradictory and myopic nature of Western (read U.S.) policy toward Saddam's Iraq. The thread that ties this book together is the interplay of international, regional and indigenous Iraqi factors and how they created an incredibly complex, fluid and, ultimately, mistake-prone policy-making environment.

Sanctioning Saddam first discusses the politics of the post-Gulf War decision-making process within Western governments and the United Nations and the rationale for crippling economic sanctions. Second, it confronts head-on the controversial and emotionally charged subject of assessing the social and economic fallout of the economic embargo. It then delves into an area largely ignored by the extant literature: an evaluation of the role and effectiveness of UN humanitarian efforts and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in various parts of this infrastructurally damaged country. By the end of the book, Graham-Brown leaves you with the unmistakable conclusion that narrowly defined state interests continue to prevail over the interests of human beings in the post-Cold War era.

After reading Geoff Simons's Iraq-Primus Inter Pariahs: A Crisis Chronology, 1997-98 (St. Martin's, $39.95), there is no doubting that the author is convinced that the United States, in order to feel important in the world, must have an obvious "enemy." Simons, a prolific British writer and editor, argues that Saddam Hussein's Iraq is most assuredly No. 1 on the U.S. Most Detestable list, and thus the target of what he describes as a cruel and "genocidal" sanctions campaign. The major overarching theme in this book is clear and polemical, and one that colors the author's thinking throughout: Don't dare step out of line and challenge U.S. hegemony in the world. Simons argues that, as far as the United States is concerned, it doesn't matter one iota whether Iraq scrupulously adheres to all the UN resolutions or eliminates every single nuclear, chemical or biological weapon in the country.

Each of his three sections stays right on message -- namely, that Washington is on a single-minded quest to starve the Iraqi people, to precipitate a military confrontation as opposed to a diplomatic settlement with Iraq (what he dubs "Gulf War II") and to thoroughly humiliate Saddam. Accordingly, he critically examines the moral fitness of the United States to declare Iraq a pariah state, chronicles the 1997-98 diplomatic two-step between Washington and Baghdad, and refers repeatedly to the crippling effect of the UN embargo on the struggling Iraqi people.

But his obsession with blaming almost everything on the United States, while completely absolving the Iraqis of any wrongdoing, reads more like a conspiracy yarn than a penetrating study. One quickly grows tired of his one-sided diatribe against just about every aspect of Americana -- from its early democratic beginnings to its current interest-based foreign policy. There is an obvious Marxist hue to much of his writing, and therefore many of his more trenchant points are lost in the dust of his ideological ax-grinding. Had Simons focused more on the reasons why the United States is so unstinting in its support for the economic embargo against Iraq -- such as weakening the regime and keeping Saddam "in a box" -- his book would have made a more important contribution.

In her wonderful book Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (Metropolitan, $26), Israeli newspaper journalist Amira Hass argues persuasively that even in the post-Oslo Accords era, life for ordinary Gazans is still tantamount to that of "animals in a cage." According to Hass, the undisputed master (and spy) is the Israeli government, implacable in its long-term objective of ensuring the economic, national and geographical displacement of Palestinians.

She paints a very depressing and horrific picture -- one of chronic poverty, stifling immobility, daily humiliations and repeated interrogations and beatings -- of Gaza's one million inhabitants. With her perceptive eyes and ears, reinforced by several years of living and traveling in Gaza, Hass does an incredible job of capturing the essence and daily grind of Palestinian existence. By focusing extensively on the human side of an oppressed people, the author enables the reader to get up close and personal with "the true face of the Strip": how tight family bonds have provided a semblance of stability; ideological differences between Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA); Palestinian religious life; the corruption, authoritarianism and cronyism that characterize the current Palestinian Authority. Her sympathies lie with the people of the Strip, and she is clearly moved by their amazing inner strength, courage, resilience and seemingly indefatigable hope.

The key issue for Hass, though, is Israel's obsession with controlling and keeping the Palestinians in line with a calculated policy of hardship and frustration, economic dependence, heavy taxation and paltry infrastructural and social investment. The book could have been strengthened by including more discussion of Israel's justification (involving issues about personal security, identity and borders) for its policy of Palestinian subjugation. But if it's true that most Israelis are largely oblivious of what transpires in the Occupied Territories, the future for Gazans is unlikely to look much different from what Hass has harshly depicted.

A seminal line in Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem (Harvard, $27.95) vividly captures the thrust of this informative book: "If Israeli leaders had their way, most of the Arab population of east Jerusalem would have left the city long ago." Indeed, in an effort to spur debate about the future of Jerusalem, authors Amir S. Cheshin, Avi Melamed (both were senior advisers to former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek) and Bill Hutman (a former journalist with the Jerusalem Post), spend a fair amount of time depicting the horrendous and unnecessarily cruel treatment visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli authorities.

There is no mistaking the authors' position that more than 30 years of Israeli rule in east Jerusalem has been an abject failure, a series of missed opportunities ultimately has created the conditions for increased tension and conflict in the city. Chapter after chapter delves into the ugly manner in which various Israeli governments -- through outright discrimination, housing policies, denial of basic municipal services and de facto annexation of land -- have sought to force Arab residents out. At the same time, these very governments have been relentless in "putting facts on the ground," establishing one new Jewish neighborhood after another by way of bulldozer and expropriation order. Kollek, or "Mr. Jerusalem" in the vernacular, is especially singled out for sharp criticism: an influential political figure whose mastery of empty words and broken promises did little to bridge the deeply rooted Jewish-Arab divide in the ancient city.

Given their high-level access to key municipal and Israeli decision-makers, the authors succeed in exposing the horrific lengths to which the Israeli government went to prevent the re-division of Jerusalem and preserve its status as the united and eternal capital of Israel. But they fail to explain in any detail the reasons underpinning the Israeli position and tend not to apportion any blame whatsoever to the actions of Jerusalem's Arab inhabitants. Furthermore, the book's plodding pace and stiff writing style, along with what appears to be a personal vendetta of sorts against Teddy Kollek, sometimes make difficult reading.

Still, Separate and Unequal does provide a healthy dose of realism from which to assess the latest round of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, the so-called final-status talks and the "Jerusalem question" in particular. And if the authors are correct in arguing that no self-respecting Israeli government would ever contemplate sharing authority over the ancient city with its Arab residents, the fate of Jerusalem and its Arab sector will continue to be a controversial, vexing and perhaps even deal-breaking issue for Middle East peace.

With the peace process once again gathering diplomatic steam, albeit with a slightly different cast of characters, I initially had high hopes for Itamar Rabinovich's Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs at the End of the Century (Farrar Straus Giroux, $20). Unfortunately, a good deal of what Rabinovich, a history professor and former senior Israeli diplomat, wrote could have easily been gleaned from the pages of a decent newspaper.

Basically, the book provides a general overview of the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict and recent efforts at negotiating a comprehensive settlement. Rabinovich discusses the Oslo Accords, opposition to their contents and problems over implementation, and the negative impact of terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens on the peace process He then outlines the extinguished hope for peace under right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the role of the Clinton administration and the glacier-like movement on the Syrian track. In addition, he examines in a cursory manner Israel's relations with the major Arab states in the region. His final section focuses on the crucial issue, at least from an Israeli standpoint, of "normalizing" its relations with its Arab neighbors and its significance as part of any broader peace framework.

The book's real strength lies in its ability to identify most of the major obstacles to a just and lasting Middle East peace -- including Israel's demand for a final and definitive settlement, its serious concerns about the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, Arab reservations about a post-peace agreement Israel seeking to dominate the regional political landscape, and substantial Arab resistance to any overall agreement with the state of Israel. On the whole, though, Waging Peace is overly historical and descriptive. Moreover, Rabinovich, who has been around the Arab-Israeli conundrum for a good many years, does not even propose his own recipe or plan for peacefully and effectively resolving this debilitating dispute.

One gets the feeling from reading this book that Rabinovich, while displaying some signs of optimism and hopefulness, is only too cognizant of the powerful forces working against a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Perhaps that explains his measured advice to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat: You should expect to confront twists and bumps along the path to reconciliation and thus opt for a more incremental process for achieving Middle East peace.

Peter McKenna teaches in the Department of Political and Canadian Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia, Canada.