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Mahmoud Abbas’ historic U.N. address swells Palestinian pride

At first the Kamal family wasn’t even sure they’d watch. As an exuberant crowd of thousands gathered a few blocks away to listen to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ask for U.N. recognition, the family preferred the quiet of their living room.

After years of stalemate with Israel, their expectations were low. And as Nihad Kamal, a 38-year-old investment manager, explained: “We’re not big fans of demonstrations.”

But ultimately, the Kamals did tune their flat-panel television to watch Abbas. And despite their doubts, the family joined thousands of other Palestinians in the West Bank on Friday night in letting go of their cynicism — if only for a moment of unabashed pride at being in the international spotlight.

In an uncharacteristically impassioned speech, the normally soft-spoken Abbas inspired a weary public that has often blamed him for lack of progress in achieving independence. Flag-draped Palestinians hung out of car windows and danced in the streets during his speech and long after it was over.

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Palestinians said they realized watching Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke after the Palestinian leader, that they still face a long road.

Underscoring the difficulty of making real progress, world powers released a new plan late Friday simply aimed at getting the two sides back to the bargaining table. But diplomats were pessimistic that it would lead anywhere.

And while Abbas’ speech received rapturous applause at the United Nations, he was facing a tough crowd back home in the West Bank.

“We really don’t need more speeches,” Kamal said shortly before the address. As his wife shut a window to block out the distant din of celebrations and horn-honking, their eldest children, 16-year-old twins Tuqa and Talal, settled on the couch. The younger children, daughters ages 8 and 4, vied for position on his lap.

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The twins said that all they knew about Abbas’ U.N. bid was that it meant they got out of school Wednesday to attend a pro-government rally. Neither did. “We hear about talking and negotiations all the time,” Tuqa said, shrugging.

But by the time Abbas reached the end of his speech, with his dramatic announcement of the submission of the Palestinian application for full U.N. membership, Tuqa was fighting back tears. Caught up in the moment, she said that maybe this U.N. application wasn’t such a bad move after all.

“Amazing speech,” her father blurted out from the sofa, adding his own short applause to that coming from the U.N. floor. “Often [Abbas] speaks softly and diplomatically. But now he is saying the things that everyone believes, even if it embarrasses the U.S. and Israel.”

He nodded in agreement as Abbas spoke about the importance of nonviolence and the danger of turning the conflict into a religious war. When Abbas talked of turning the so-called Arab Spring into a “Palestinian spring,” Kamal exclaimed: “Excellent! Yes!”

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Not surprisingly, the words and images played out differently five miles away in Har Adar, a middle-class suburban settlement that straddles the 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, where Rachel Schlime-Hanoch, an Israeli mother of three, watched with her family.

The 41-year-old human resources developer at a high-tech company said Netanyahu was an excellent speaker, and she was interested in hearing what he had to say.

On the other hand, she was dubious about Abbas’ intentions.

“He shouldn’t have gone to the U.N. like this,” she said. “What have they achieved with this move?”

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But when it was over, there was some common ground as well.

Both families thought Abbas delivered an uncharacteristically passionate address, though they agreed that Netanyahu was a stronger orator.

Neither heard anything that changed their views. And both said that when the talking was over, very little would change.

“This isn’t a turning point,” Schlime-Hanoch said.

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Schlime-Hanoch looked up from her laundry-folding when Abbas said Israeli settlements violated international law and have torpedoed peace deals.

“He sounds like he’s come to attack, not to make peace,” she said.

When Abbas complained that Palestinians should have had a state years ago, Rachel’s sister, Hanna Schlime, countered, “And they could have too, if they had accepted Israel’s offers in the past. They are not entirely an innocent party here.”

At the same time, Schlime said she’d like to see a better future for Palestinians.

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“The Palestinians have rights,” Schlime said. “They deserve better living conditions. It is hard to see children without a future. A child with no future becomes an adult easily steered into radicalism and extremity.”

The Israeli family missed the first part of Netanyahu’s speech. With all due respect to the U.N., it was time for Shabbat dinner, and as much as they were keen to hear Netanyahu speak, the television was turned off until about 15 minutes into Netanyahu’s remarks.

When they tuned in again, Netanyahu was speaking about the need for security arrangements to protect against Islamic extremists and weapons smuggling.

The Hanochs were pleased to hear Netanyahu make an appeal for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured more than five years ago by militants in the Gaza Strip.

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In the Palestinian household, the smiles and nods for Abbas turned to smirks and eye-rolling at Netanyahu. Kamal’s wife, Hana, and Tuqa lost interest and left the room. Son Talal could barely bring himself to watch the screen, shaking his head and staring down instead.

Netanyahu’s mention of Shalit prompted Kamal to ask the Israeli prime minister’s image on the set: “What about the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in your jails?”

As the Israeli prime minister finished, there was almost a sigh of relief at the Kamals’ home. They agreed that he’s a better public speaker than Abbas, but found his message lacking. “He didn’t convince me he’s sincere,” Kamal said. “Not at all.”

Netanyahu’s remarks damped the family’s spirits a bit.

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Said Kamal, “Ultimately, what is going to happen is going to happen, regardless of speeches.”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman, a news assistant in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau, contributed to this report from the Har Adar settlement.


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