JERUSALEM – The Palestinian president has set off a strident debate by shattering a once-inviolable taboo, publicly suggesting his people would have to relinquish claims to ancestral homes in Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas' comments on the refugee issue, made in an interview on Israeli TV over the weekend, triggered hot responses from Palestinians and Israelis alike.
In Israel, it suddenly put the long-sidelined issue of peace talks back in the Israeli public's consciousness ahead of parliamentary elections.
Palestinians have maintained for six decades that Arabs who either fled or were expelled from their homes during the fighting that followed Israel's 1948 creation, as well as all their descendants, all have the right to reclaim former properties in what is now Israel.
Israel says a mass return of these people, believed to number some 5 million, would spell the end of Israel as the Jewish state. Also, Israel rejects the concept of a legal "right of return."
In the interview, Abbas was asked about his birthplace of Safed — now a town in northern Israel. He told the interviewer that while he would like to visit, he doesn't claim the right to live there.
"I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah (in the West Bank). I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. And the other parts is Israel," Abbas said in English. "I want to see Safed. It is my right to see it, but not to live there," he said.
The comments were widely seen as an acknowledgment that return of all the refugees would be impossible. While Palestinian officials privately acknowledge that, they have been reluctant to say so in public.
His adviser, Nimr Hammad, said Abbas was being "realistic."
"He knows he can't bring back 5.5 million Palestinian refugees to Israel," Hammad said.
Some West Bank Palestinians were disappointed that their leader had made an overture to Israel without receiving any gestures in exchange.
"President Abbas is a failure," said Iyad Alotol, a government employee in Ramallah. "He is ceding the right of return without getting anything from the Israelis. He is a man who makes concessions for free."
Abbas, an outspoken proponent of a diplomatic solution with Israel, has little to show for his efforts. He has seen his popularity steadily decline in the West Bank, and in 2007, he lost control of the Gaza Strip to the rival Islamic militant Hamas.
Condemnation of Abbas predictably was harsh in Gaza. Hamas rejects negotiations and believe only violence will persuade Israel to give up captured territory.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh termed Abbas' remarks "extremely dangerous." At demonstrations in Gaza on Saturday, some protesters burned posters of a smiling Abbas, and others emblazoned the word "traitor" on posters of the Palestinian leader.
In Israel, Abbas' comments were the talk of the town on Sunday, as officials debated how serious Abbas was.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his Cabinet reacted coolly, even mistrustfully, to Abbas' remarks. Israeli moderates warned against missing a chance to negotiate with a person they consider a partner for peacemaking.
The Abbas interview appeared to be aimed at soothing Israeli concerns before he goes to the United Nations later this month in hopes of winning "nonmember state" observer status for a Palestinian state inside the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967.
Israel opposes the U.N. bid, accusing Abbas of trying to sidestep the negotiating process. It says the borders of a Palestinian state can be determined only through direct negotiations.
"I think President Abbas wanted to convey a message of assurance to the Israelis ahead of their elections, that he wants to have a state within the 1967 borders and doesn't seek war or to delegitimize Israel," said Palestinian analyst Bassem Zbaidi. "He told them, I'm not going to the U.N. to besiege you, on the contrary, I'm going to make peace with you."
Abbas' remarks suddenly returned the moribund state of peacemaking to the center of Israeli political discourse. With peace efforts frozen for the past four years, Israeli leaders have been preoccupied with Iran's suspect nuclear program and local economic issues, and the Palestinian issue has not been a major factor in the campaign for Jan. 22 parliamentary elections.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who has been closely involved in peace efforts over the past two decades, said Palestinians have assured Israeli counterparts that they would be willing to agree to this compromise on the refugee issue.
"We can't say that we don't have a partner for peacemaking. Abu Mazen has expressed willingness to forfeit the 'right of return' in closed talks, too," Barak said, using Abbas' nickname.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn't impressed, noting that Abbas subsequently backtracked in an interview with an Egyptian TV station. "No one can forfeit the right of return," Abbas told Egypt's Al-Hayyat TV on Saturday.
"This just proves how important direct, unconditional negotiations are," Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "Only in direct negotiations is it possible to find out what the real positions are."
Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused Abbas of trying to tilt the results of Israel's Jan. 22 election.
"He is meddling on behalf of the (Israeli) left ... which represents Palestinian interests," he told Army Radio, noting that the Palestinian president takes a much harder line against Israel when speaking to his people in Arabic.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who made a peace proposal to Abbas in 2008, issued a harsh statement accusing Netanyahu of missing a critical opportunity to pursue peace.
"This policy toward the only partner possible for peace between us and the Palestinians is irresponsible and can damage the most vital Israeli interests," Olmert said. He said the Abbas interview "proves to the Israeli public that there is someone to speak to and things to discuss with the goal of solving this bloody conflict."
Additional reporting from Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank.