David Tal specializes in Israel's early military history, from the 1948 war to the shaping of its security concept afterwards and the road to the Suez war of 1956. With this academic background, his new book promises a marked contribution to the historiography of 1948, which has hitherto been concerned mainly with political and diplomatic aspects and rarely addressed the war's military dimension.
The book indeed offers the first comprehensive documented military history of the two phases in the 1948 war, namely, the inter-communal Arab-Jewish war (30 November 1947–14 May 1948) and the international war, which began with the invasion of Palestine by four Arab regular armies immediately after the proclamation of the State of Israel and the end of the British Mandate.
Tal presents a detailed record of the events, especially the military course of the war and operations conducted by the main military players. He elaborates on the changes of each actor's order of battle, armament, battle units and their deployment, and explains the immediate causes of military failures and successes, on both tactical and operational levels. Within this context he addresses and adequately tackles some key issues regarding military objectives and decision making, such as: why did the Egyptian army refrain from proceeding [End Page 164] to Tel Aviv; the difficulties of the Jewish military command to shift from fighting a guerrilla warfare to a regular one till a relatively late phase of the war; and the impact of the battle for Jerusalem on the Jewish total war effort and decision making.
On a broader level, Tal's main conclusions are largely in line with the common wisdom about the war: The failure of the Arab Palestinians reflected their political fragmentation and weak institutions; Israel's military successes and territorial gains were scored in battles against irregular forces, whether local Arab-Palestinians or foreign volunteers; the Arab military and political involvement in the war was marked by interstate competition and reluctance to risk their own forces for rescuing Arab-Palestine. Nonetheless, apart from the last two operations against the Egyptian forces in the south (October and December 1948), the IDF failed in its initiated operations against regular Arab forces; the regular Arab armies rarely attacked areas allotted to the Jewish state, and their main areas of deployment were largely congruent with the territories assigned for the Arab-Palestinian state; and only King Abdallah of Jordan was motivated by appetite for territorial gains. The book offers no convincing causal explanation for the collective decision of the Arab League's member states to invade Palestine other than referring to their competition for power and prestige—the prevailing argument in the literature—thus overlooking the primary role played by domestic social and political forces in driving their governments to send their armies into Palestine.
Tal's heroic effort to encompass both military and diplomatic history of the war and all the parties involved can hardly conceal fundamental deficiencies of both substance and methodology. For one, the book represents by and large the Israeli narrative of events, periodization, and perceptions of the Arab adversaries and processes of decision making as well as military failures and successes. Indeed, the book's better parts are those discussing the Israeli military processes of decision making and records of Israeli operations, especially those conducted in the later part of the war against the Egyptian forces.
Tal counts heavily on Israeli primary sources (most salient among them are Ben-Gurion's war diary and IDF archives and post-war studies) and British archives to tell the story of both Jewish and Arab players in the war. In the absence of accessible official archives in the Arab states the author's inability to use even the available Arabic literature on the war—other than a handful of sources translated into Hebrew—the book leaves out a wealth of accessible primary Arab sources such as newspapers, archival documents held by Israeli archives, diaries, memoirs, and studies. The result is that the book falls short of providing anything close to a balanced...