Israelis are used to turning on the evening news at 8 P.M. and finding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face there. But on Thursday evening, instead of watching the prime minister enumerate his achievements in the war on the coronavirus, viewers saw the face of United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas – flanked by the green flags of the Islamic Movement – appealing to the Israeli public in Hebrew and during prime time.
It was an extraordinary sight. “I, Mansour Abbas, a member of the Islamic Movement, an Arab and a proud Muslim, extend my hand … to create an opportunity for a shared life, in the holy and blessed land for the followers of the three religions and both peoples.”
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But such placatory messages were not the news politicians had so eagerly been waiting for. Everyone was calmly waiting to hear: Who will Abbas support for prime minister? Which candidate will he recommend that the president task with forming the next government?
Abbas disappointed the crowd. “I do not want to be part of any bloc – on the right or on the left.” He continued on with his soothing message, advocating non–violence, as well as acceptance of and listening to the other. When he finished speaking, Abbas left the hall – he had never planned on answering any questions.
For their part, all that senior UAL officials said was: “We have no intention of losing momentum. We rolled the ball onto the playing field, and now we are waiting for the results.”
Except for Religious Zionism party representatives, Abbas’ speech did not ignite any significant counter-responses on the right. Certainly not; Abbas did not say a single word that could have challenged them. The term Palestine was never even mentioned, nor was the two-state solution or the concept of self-determination. The nation-state law, Kaminitz Law and the issue of unrecognized Bedouin towns in the Negev weren’t mentioned either.
Equality and partnership were the only magic words. “Citizens of Israel, I stand in front of you in the atmosphere of the Passover and Easter holidays and on the eve of the month of Ramadan, and carry a prayer of hope, and an uncompromising aspiration for shared life on the basis of mutual respect and true equality,” said Abbas.
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Any lawmaker, from the right or the left, could have signed off on every word he said; Netanyahu, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett and New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar would have been willing to espouse them immediately.
Abbas did not list his demands for the coalition negotiations or any concrete positions – he is open to offers. He may have made the headlines because of his speech on Thursday, but now is when he will face the real test. While the Israeli public views the speech as a message of conciliation, in the Arab community the responses were divided.
For his supporters it was a sophisticated speech that penetrated every home in Israel. For his opponents, the speech reeked of obsequiousness, defeatism and flattery to the right. For now, the main question is where will Abbas be in a few weeks, and what he will accomplish for his constituents – if he doesn’t achieve results, his conciliatory speech could quickly turn into a eulogy for his political career.