As negotiations between the Arabs and Israel grind on, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out just what the Arab leaders have in mind, for they seem to say one thing in in public and another in private. Which do they really mean, what they say in their more bellicose speeches or in their more conciliatory off-the-record remarks? A look backward shows that this dual pattern has a long history; and that it's actually quite easy to figure out what carries more weight.
As long ago as 1933, an exasperated British ambassador to Iraq dressed down King Faysal on this matter, using some strong language: "Was I to report to my government," he rhetorically asked,
that Iraq's public men, men who had held the highest positions in the State, made speeches on solemn occasions in which they voiced opinions which they knew to be false and meaningless? Was I to say that the Iraqi Parliament was just a sham, a place where time and money was wasted by a handful of men, who, while masquerading as statesmen, neither meant what they said, nor said what they believed?
In recent times, The Arab-Israeli conflict prompts the greatest inconsistency between public and private utterances. Fiery anti-Zionism characterizes public statements far more than it does private ones, as American officials have frequently noted. A U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the 1950s wrote about the inconsistency of Nuri as-Sa'id, Iraq's long-time prime minister: "Nuri's public statements on Israel differed sharply from what he had to say in private. His public statements, like those of all Pan-Arab nationalists, were bitter and uncompromising. In private, he discussed Israel calmly, reasonably, and with moderation."
Likewise, a U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s related that King Faysal would carry on about the Zionist conspiracy. After hours of this, the king would eventually dismiss the note taker and get down to the real business at hand. Along similar lines, Henry Kissinger pointed out in 1973: "Every leader I have talked to so far has made it clear that it is far easier for them to ease pressures [on Israel] de facto than as public Arab policy."
What about Arab insistence on an independent Palestinian state? Jimmy Carter raised eyebrows when he revealed in 1979 (at a moment when Arab politicians were pushing especially hard for this goal), "I have never met an Arab leader that in private professed the desire for an independent Palestinian state." Three years later, Carter explained in his memoir that
almost all the Arabs could see that an independent [Palestinian] nation in the heart of the Middle East might be a serious point of friction and a focus for radicalizing influence. ... However, because of the powerful political influence of the PLO in international councils and the threat of terrorist attacks from some of its forces, few Arabs had the temerity to depart from their original position in a public statement.
Israelis have noted this same contradiction. According to Moshe Dayan, Anwar al-Sadat "frequently stated" in private his opposition to a Palestinian state. Even Palestinians point out the inconsistency. George Habash, the Palestinian leader, observed in 1991 that while the Algerian and Yemeni governments really do want a Palestinian state, "Jordan doesn't. Syria is not decided." He concluded that "You could say that perhaps the effective Arab states do not want one."
American officials have come to anticipate that private conversations with Arabs will soften public attacks on Israel. Here's Richard Nixon on Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad: "I was convinced that Asad would continue to play the hardest of hard lines in public, but in private he would follow the Arab proverb that he told me during one of our meetings: 'When a blind man can see with one eye it is better than not being able to see at all'."
No Arab politician played this game more often and astutely than Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt; indeed, he exemplified this contradictory pattern, adopting stands as the occasion suited him. Privately he said to a number of Western mediators he was willing to negotiate with Israel, but publicly he led the fight against the Jewish state. He devoted much of his early presidency to making Israel the central issue of Arab politics, but Miles Copeland, an American intelligence officer, later described him thinking the Palestine issue at that time "unimportant."
In contrast, at the end of his presidency, Abdel Nasser softened his public position toward Israel but hardened his private position. Three days after accepting U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 with its goal of "a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security," he instructed the army brass not to "pay any attention to anything I may say in public about a peaceful solution."
Abdel Nasser even acknowledged his own inconsistency. To President Kennedy he acknowledged that "some Arab politicians were making harsh statements concerning Palestine publicly and then contacting the American Government to alleviate their harshness by saying that their statements were meant for local Arab consumption."
This pattern of inconsistency raises an important question: What should an outsider believe, whispers or shouts? Refining this question slightly: which of the two levels of discussion, private or public, provides a better guide to policy? Which predicts actions more reliably?
A review of the historical record leaves no question as to the answer: Public pronouncements count more than private communications. Neither provides an infallible guide, for politicians lie in both public and private, but the former predict actions better than the latter. Murmurings from his ear to yours might well reflect a politician's personal views, but the rhetoric is more operational. In other words, whatever Nuri's thoughts, Iraqi conduct toward Israel remained steadily hostile to Israel. Abdel Nasser made war three times with Israel. Arab leaders work for a Palestinian state, regardless of what they may feel in their hearts. Were the views expressed in tête-à-têtes with Western officials operational, the Arab-Israeli conflict would have been resolved long ago.
Insiders attach great value to exclusive and confidential one-to-one conversations with leaders. As the Spanish writer Miguel De Unamuno puts it, "Some people will believe anything if you whisper it to them." To understand Middle East politics, however, one is better off reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts than talking to politicians in private. Privileged information tends to mislead; what the masses hear counts. This rule of thumb helps explain why distant observers more often get the point than do on-the-spot diplomats and journalists.
Sep. 25, 1995 update: For a variant of this thesis, see my co-authored piece with Alexander T. Stillman, "Two-faced Yasir," in which we note how Arafat "holds up only an olive branch for the West and a Kalashnikov for his fellow Arabs." This case suggests a refinement to the above thesis that what's said in public counts more than in private: What's said in Arabic counts more than what's said in English.
Jan. 1, 2008 update: For an application of the private-public thesis, see today's update at "Recognizing Israel as the Jewish State: Updates," where Ehud Olmert reports Mahmoud Abbas privately contradicting his public remarks about recognizing Israel as the Jewish state.
Dec. 14, 2010 update: I draw on the above analysis for a column today, "Pouring Cold Water on WikiLeaks," where I argue that, when it comes to Middle East politics, "one does better reading press releases and listening to speeches than relying on diplomatic cables."
Sep. 1, 2011 update: A confidential U.S. government cable dated Oct. 2, 2009, concerning Tunisia (released by WikiLeaks) points to a private-public discrepancy where the latter is again the more instructive:
Tunisia has clearly been wary of public opinion, which has been enflamed by images of violence from Israeli-Arab conflicts, particularly the fighting in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 and in Gaza in early 2009. Tunisian leaders occasionally complain to us that Al-Jazeera's coverage of these conflicts has riled Tunisian public opinion, limiting the Government of Tunisia (GOT)'s perceived range of policy options. Ironically, Tunisian media, tightly controlled by the state, actively fans the flames of public anger regarding the conflict. The Tunisian tabloid press in particular, while slavishly obsequious in its coverage of President Ben Ali, has a free hand to publish as fact outrageous conspiracy theories involving Israel and Jews, and generally imbalanced coverage of events in the Israel-Palestine theatre.
Sep. 8, 2011 update: Another confidential U.S. government cable, this one dated Oct. 5, 2009, and about Egypt, points to the discrepancy between private nuance and public outrage over the failed bid of Farouk Hosny, Egypt's culture minister, to become director general of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), suggesting that the private view better explains Cairo's policy than the public one. Comment: It was the public response, not the private one, that had political import.
May 16, 2013 update: Former Jordanian prime minister Abdelraouf Al-Rawabdeh spoke on Al-Jazeera on April 1, 2013, as transcribed by MEMRI:
The preacher speaking from the pulpit, the philosopher, the politician, the university professor, the school teacher – they are all attuned to the conscience of the nation. Listen carefully to what I am saying. They are attuned to the conscience of the nation, and they are true to what they believe in, but they are not responsible for its implementation. A preacher steps up to the pulpit and declares: "We must confront America, the spearhead of heresy." Fine. What does he want us to do about it? He doesn't say.
Along comes the politician, whose job it is to understand the local, regional, and international balance of power, and he talks only about what he can accomplish. Once, when I was running for office, someone tried to give me a hard time. He approached me and asked: "What do you think about America?" I asked him: "Are you asking me as a politician or as a candidate?"
He said he was asking me as a candidate, so I said: "America is an enemy state, which provides weapons to Israel, kills our Palestinian people, controls our Arab countries, expropriates our oil, and destroys our economy." So he was pleased, but then he said: "And as a politician?" I said: "America is our friend. It stands by us and provides us with aid."
He said: "Don't you see that as a moral contradiction?" "No," I said. "I say that America is an enemy in order to appease you, and I say it is a friend in order to get you food. You tell me which you prefer." [Rawabdeh laughs]
Comment: Rawabdeh's candid admission implies that there is no single truth abiding in politicians' hearts but that they shift with the moment and the audience, making it all the more difficult to ascertain what their real policies will be.