HISTORY IS ARGUABLY the most pernicious weapon in the hands of the protagonists in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It can be unsheathed at any moment to lop the head off a promising peace initiative when one side feels, as invariably happens, that the deal falls short of expectations. So it is a brave man or woman who seeks to define and analyse the seeds of confbct in the Middle East as John Keay has done. Where does one start? Keay kicks off with an incident in Egypt in 1906 when a group of British officers set out on a pigeon-shooting expedition which led to carnage in the vdlage of Dinshawi on both sides - the first of many incidents which the British handled clumsily and insensitively in their decades of involvement there. And with occasional glances over his shoulder to earlier events that had a bearing on Britain's bumbling attempts to create a coherent Middle East policy, Keay launches into a history of the subsequent decades. It is a story that swings all the way h-om tragedy to farce - with every step in between. It is a story, too, of colourful eccentrics: T E Lawrence, of course, and Gertrude Bell, whose home in British-run Baghdad was known to her colleagues as 'Chastity Chase'.
Keay's account of Britain's time in Iraq is one of the most interesting in the book, especially in the light of what has been happening there over the past few months. A pity, perhaps, that Messrs Bush and Blair did not have a chance to look at it before they