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The same pattern applied to specifics. He spoke in private to Western diplomats about a readiness to negotiate with Israel; but addressing the world, he rejected the very existence of the Jewish state as well as any compromise with it. After the 1967 war, for example, Abdel Nasser secretly signaled to Americans a willingness to sign a non-belligerency accord with Israel “with all its consequences” while publicly rejecting negotiations and insisting that “That which was taken by force will be regained by force.” The public statement, as usual, defined his actual policies.
Not only did Abdel Nasser’s shouts offer a far more accurate guide to his actions than his whispers, but he tacitly admitted as much, telling John F. Kennedy 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.” Thus did Abdel Nasser precisely describe his own behavior.
Contrarily, when speaking privately not to Westerners but to their own, Arab leaders do sometimes reveal the truth. Memorably, the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat publicly signed the 1993 Oslo Accords recognizing Israel but he expressed his real intentions in private when he appealed to Muslims in a South African mosque “to come and to fight and to start the jihad to liberate Jerusalem.”
It’s intuitive to privilege the confidential over the overt and the private over the public. However, Middle East politics repeatedly shows that one does better reading press releases and listening to speeches than relying on diplomatic cables. Confidential views may be more heartfelt but, asDalia Dassa Kaye of the Rand Corporation notes, “what Arab leaders say to U.S. officials and what they might do may not always track.” The masses hear policies; high-ranking Westerners hear seduction.
This rule of thumb explains why distant observers often see what nearby diplomats and journalists miss. It also raises doubts about the utility of the WikiLeaks data dump. In the end, it may distract us more than clarify what we know about Arab policies.
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