To students of diplomatic history, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the efforts to resolve it offer a particularly fertile field for research and analysis, for this is a complex and protracted conflict affecting an important part of the world that attracted much international attention and became a focus of superpower rivalry. Even as archives open, the conflict and peace process continue to unfold, providing historians with the grist for conflicting interpretations and intriguing changes in outlook.
Caplan has built for himself an excellent reputation among historians of Arab-Israeli relations as a historian who reconstructs the scarlet thread—the principal and material chain of events—through careful scrutiny of archival and other historical sources. He provides a low-key account that builds from the bottom up, telling the story, letting the reader form an opinion, then offering his own interpretation. Earlier volumes dealt with Arab-Zionist diplomacy in the eras 1913-31 and 1931-48; this one deals with a crucial period—the failure to conclude the first Arab-Israeli war with a peace agreement and the subsequent festering problem that led to the full-fledged Arab-Israeli conflict as we now know it.
The 1948-54 period is so rich in events and archival material that Caplan had to limit his scope severely. He decided to disregard bilateral Arab-Israeli negotiations and focus his investigation on international and third party efforts—Count Benadotte's mission, the Israeli-Egyptian armistice negotiations, the Palestine Conciliation Commission, and the Lausanne Conference. This restriction results in some loss of depth and richness but permits greater coherence and enables him to finish the volume and move on to volume four.1
Volume three offers no radical innovation; as others have argued before, Caplan finds a conflict perpetuated by the irreconcilability of the parties' positions. Both sides entered the 1948 war fully convinced of the truth and justice on their side. Israeli leaders felt that because they had accepted partition and the Arabs had not, because the Arabs had attacked and lost, and because Israel was still threatened, they need not make major concessions to make peace. Arabs felt that they had been terribly wronged, that Israel was innately illegitimate, and so Israel had to compensate them by offering a major concession to open serious negotiations—exactly the sort of gesture Israelis saw as a threat to their security.
The great powers and the United Nations tended to agree with the Arab view but lacked the will or the power to enforce this view. Arab procedural intransigence plus the modicum of stability afforded by the armistice regime combined to perpetuate the status quo.
Caplan exonerates the powers and the U.N. from charges that they failed to invest sufficient efforts to resolve the conflict, blaming the impasse not on the passivity of the international system but the intransigence of the parties. He rightly objects to the "missed opportunities" paradigm that so many writers on this topic are fond of, seeing this primarily as a mechanism by which critics of Israeli policy can lay the primary responsibility for the absence of a solution on Israel. Caplan's study does not fundamentally alter our view of this period, but it does offer a crisp account of a crucial phase and a definitive study of several important chapters in the Arab-Israeli conflict.