Poles apart

Two compelling books on the Middle East - one focused on Israel and the other on Egypt - expose deep

Jonathan Cook and John R Bradley are maverick British journalists who specialise in writing about the Middle East. What distinguishes them from many other western commentators is that they have gone native in the Arab world, living among Arab people and immersing themselves in Arab culture. What also makes them stand out is the way they write with a manifest determination to make a difference, and that both have made more impact outside than inside Britain.

There the similarities end, however, because while Cook - whose latest book is Israel and the Clash of Civilisations - is preoccupied with the Israel/Palestine conflict, Bradley - whose new book is Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution - addresses the conflict no more than cursorily, focusing his attention instead on the political and social pathology of the Arab world. If it is instructive to compare them, it is because the bias of their sympathies epitomises a deep and general division of western opinion.

Currently resident in Nazareth, Cook exemplifies to an extreme degree the belief that when it comes to the Middle East, westerners of conscience are bound to be engaged with the Palestine/Israel conflict above all else. He regards Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as a mon strous injustice that must be resolved if stability is ever to be brought to the Middle East.

By contrast, the implication of the work of Cairo-based John R Bradley is that to become fixated on Israel's conduct is to ignore the inherent ills of Arab culture. Bradley subscribes to the view that even if you were to subtract Israel from the Middle East, and subtract to boot the role of Israel's indulgent benefactor, the United States, the Arab world would still be a scene of regression - and that, thanks not least to Islam, it is likely to remain so until it whole heartedly embraces western-style democracy and intellectual freedom.

Cook is a writer of forensic rigour, but there is no mistaking either his moral outrage at the west's readiness to turn a blind eye to Israel's violations of international law or his black-and-white view of the Palestine/Israel conflict. He finds it intolerable that, while holding forth about human rights, the west allows Israel to brutalise the Palestinians with impunity. His book Blood and Religion (2006) highlighted the systematic dis crimination directed by the Israeli state against the Arabs who live in Israel itself and who - unlike their fellow Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza - ostensibly enjoy full Israeli citizenship; it is their predicament, he insists, that exposes the intrinsically undemocratic, not to say racist, character of the Jewish state.

Cook's latest book arraigns Israel not just as a racist enterprise but as an increasing threat to world peace. It was Zionist determination to make the Middle East safe for the Jewish state, he argues, that did much to precipitate the Iraq War and the chaos and sectarian conflict that followed. He claims that, far from being unintended consequences of US policy, civil war and partition were seen by the pro-Israel neoconservatives who have dominated the White House under President George W Bush as serving both US and Israeli interests.

His central contention is that after the 11 September 2001 attacks Israel sold its "war on terror" in relation to the occupied territories as an integral part of the US war against global terrorism. "The question of what to do with the Palestinians," he writes, "has increasingly been tied to the question of what the west should do about Islamic extremism. Israel has therefore been nurturing a view of itself as on the frontiers of the west in an epoch-making clash of civilisations."

If Cook says what few Jews want to hear, John R Bradley says what few Arabs or their western liberal sympathisers wish to be told. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is Bradley's views that have found more favour with American newspaper and magazine editors. Never published in Britain but acclaimed in the US, his book Saudi Arabia Exposed (2005) was a portrait of a kingdom in crisis, an Arab state where Wahhabism, the austere variety of Islam with which the Saudi royal family has long allied itself, has become a double-edged sword, breeding zealots, chief among them Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers, and profoundly compromising the collusive relationship between the House of Saud and the US political Establishment. Brad ley's message was that it behoved the west to open better lines of communication with the Saudi people if it was not to find itself facing a Muslim theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Ordinary Saudis, he emphasised, are decent people who yearn to throw off the yoke of Wahhabism and who are eminently open to genuine western overtures.

Bradley's testimony was the more compelling because he had penetrated what was long a closed society and become managing editor of the leading Saudi newspaper Arab News. Not that he would be especially welcome in Saudi Arabia now. His book proved inflammatory. It remains to be seen how welcome he will be now in Egypt. Depicting a hopelessly dysfunctional country where poverty, torture and corruption are ubiquitous, Inside Egypt warns that the regime of the long-serving pro-US president, Hosni Mubarak, is increasingly threatened by Islamist extremism in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its promise to deliver the Egyptian masses from oppression. Mubarak and his son and likely successor Gamal are universally loathed, and great numbers of Egyptians, Bradley reports, would leave the country tomorrow if only they could. Many among the educated classes, meanwhile, have become "nostalgic" for the colonial era. Yet, according to Bradley, most Egyptians are Washington's "natural allies" and it is easy to exaggerate the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism to a country with a many-faceted religious and ethnic make-up. Like the House of Saud, he writes, the Mubarak regime has duped Washington into regarding it as an indispensable bulwark against Islamism, thus ensuring that it continues to be propped up by the US to the tune of billions of dollars.

Bradley argues that the US ought to make future economic aid to Egypt conditional on genuine democratic reforms; he argues, too, albeit in token fashion, that it needs to solve the Palestine/Israel conflict, which Mubarak exploits as a means of distracting his country's masses from their own misfortunes. To let things fester can only, he stresses, increase the chances of Egypt falling prey to Islamist extremism, with dire consequences for the whole Middle East. His feeling is that Egypt currently has much in common with Iran in 1979 on the eve of the fall of the shah.

Bradley's most provocative chapter deals with torture in Egypt. Abuse, he claims, is by no means confined to Egypt's "superarmy" of 1.4 million police. Rather, it has become an integral part of the fabric of Middle Eastern culture, making individuals complicit in the punishment that their regimes mete out. Compare, he writes, the "extraordinary outpouring of sympathy on the day of the execution of the Arab world's worst-ever butcher, Saddam Hussein, throughout Egypt and the wider Middle East, to the shedding of not a single tear for his hundreds of thousands of victims". This is a startling claim. Not a single tear? Shia Arabs whose relatives were among his victims certainly shed tears. But Bradley generalises here about Arabs in a way he would hardly generalise about Europeans or Americans. If truth be told, the reactions of many Arabs to Saddam Hussein's demise were mixed, their pride that he stood up to the US hyperpower mingling with very different emotions.

Bradley's book is published at a time of widely felt revulsion against Israel's punitive treatment of the people of Gaza, and just weeks after the pouring across the border from Gaza into Egypt of thousands of desperate Palestinians - a development perhaps viewed in Israel as a convenient means of turning them into Egypt's problem. What is striking, however, is the meagre attention accorded to Israel in Inside Egypt, especially considering how much might be said about torture in Israeli prisons and the many Palestinians arbitrarily detained in them. It is true that Bradley was no supporter of the US intervention in Iraq, but his book ministers to the belief of American and Israeli Zionists that the failings of the Arab world are largely of its own making.

Accepting the inevitability of US/Israeli dominance of the Middle East, John R Bradley is advocating continued, if "improved", western involvement in the region. Jonathan Cook, on the other hand, believes that confronting the imperialist thrust of US/Israeli policy is a moral imperative and that not to place the Palestine/ Israel conflict at the heart of the discussion about the Middle East is to demonstrate a basic and fatally counterproductive contempt for the Arab people. It is not a gap that separates what these two Middle East analysts stand for. It is an unbridgeable chasm.

The paperback of Neil Berry's Articles of Faith: the Story of British Intellectual Journalism will be published this autumn