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Romance, intrigue brew amid conflict in Middle East

He was dubbed the Jewish JFK, ready to waltz into Congress, with unlimited political potential.

She was from another world, the strong-willed Palestinian woman who couldn't escape from her roots, even in America.

They became the unlikeliest of lovers, years ago, when their paths crossed at Harvard Law School.

And now their trails meet once again, following the assassination of Israel's prime minister by suicide bombers on the streets of San Francisco.

That event becomes a life-changing experience for the former lovers.

David Wolfe has to decide what kind of man he is, and whether to risk both his promising political career and his carefully planned future with his Jewish girlfriend, in order to defend a Palestinian woman who might be guilty.

Hana Arif, after being accused in the assassination conspiracy, is battling for something even more fundamental -- her own life and her role as the mother of a preteen daughter.

That's the basic plot line of "Exile," Richard North Patterson's compelling dive into the deep end of the pool, into the messy Middle East battleground.

As Patterson puts it so succinctly, David once had offered Hana a life with him; now she had returned to disrupt the life he'd built without her.

This is two books.

First, a beautifully crafted novel with a suspenseful plot, several twists, a revived love story and enough political intrigue to keep the reader immersed.

But Patterson has done more than entertain here. He's also taken on perhaps the most difficult issue of our time, the Israeli-Palestinian battle of wills and rights.

One thing is certain. Patterson, who exhaustively spells out both sides of this irreconcilable conflict, will anger both sides of the aisle.

It's almost as if Patterson counted pages -- or even paragraphs -- partial to each side, to make sure the scales balanced.

The author capsulizes the argument in a comment David makes to an Israeli friend in Jerusalem, while traveling to the Middle East to find the origins of the murder conspiracy:

"You know what amazes me, Zev? It's that so many Jews and Palestinians don't give a damn about one another's stories. Too many Palestinians don't grasp why 3,000 years of death and persecution make Jews want their own homeland, or how suicide bombings alienate Jews and extend the occupation. Too many Jews refuse to acknowledge their role in the misery of Palestinians since 1948, or that the daily toll of occupation helps fuel more hatred and violence. So both become cliches: Jews are victims and oppressors; Palestinians are victims and terrorists. And the cycle of death rolls on."

If Patterson tips his hand at all on his own thoughts, they come out of the mouth of the soon-to-be-silenced Israeli prime minister, Amos Ben-Aron, in a talk about the extremists on both sides:

"Fundamentalism is certitude -- it's ideology, not religion. Hamas and our extremist settlers share a common dialectic, the absence of doubt. They are cousins of the American Christian fundamentalists who believe that the Jews and Arabs must annihilate each other to bring about the Second Coming."

Only one quibble from this reader: the third quarter of this book, a travelogue through Israel and the occupied West Bank, drags on a bit, the only bump in the road on this long, otherwise page-turning read.

Through his main character, Wolfe, the ever-moral attorney, Patterson also tosses in one of the great postscripts of the Holocaust:

"I'm reminded of the words of a German pastor who died in one of Hitler's concentration camps," Wolfe tells the Today show. "'First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't Jewish. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak on my behalf.'"

No easy answers here, but a great read and a mini-education on the complexities of the Middle East quagmire.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.



By Richard North Patterson

Henry Holt, 562 pages, $26

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