Remarks by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suggesting that he was conceding the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, a core issue in dispute with Israel, drew a wary response Sunday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after setting off a storm of controversy in the Palestinian territories.
"Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified," Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting. "If Abu Mazen is really serious and intends to promote peace, as far as I'm concerned we can sit down together immediately." Abu Mazen is Abbas' nickname.
Netanyahu's reaction contrasted with that of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who on Saturday praised Abbas' comments to an Israeli television station as a "brave and important public declaration" by a "real partner for peace." Some Israeli newspaper commentators also called the Palestinian leader's remarks a significant development.
In an interview broadcast Friday on Israel's Channel 2 television, Abbas attempted to reach out to the Israeli public after a protracted stalemate in peace efforts. The appearance came weeks before an expected Palestinian bid this month for recognition at the United Nations as a non-member observer state, and as an Israeli election campaign begins to gather steam.
Abbas was asked indirectly about the Palestinian demand for the return of refugees who fled or were expelled in the war that accompanied the establishment of Israel in 1948, one of the most intractable issues in the decades-old conflict.
Palestinians view the right of return of the refugees and their descendants to their former homes in what is now Israel as a necessary element of any agreement. Israel has rejected the idea as a demographic threat to its existence and a sign that the Palestinians have not accepted Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state.
Channel 2's diplomatic correspondent, Udi Segal, broached the subject by asking Abbas, who as a boy fled with his family from the town of Safed, in northern Israel, whether he wanted to go back and live there.
"I want to see Safed," Abbas replied. "It's my right to see it, but not to live there."
"Is it Palestine for you?" Segal asked.
"Palestine now for me is the '67 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital," Abbas replied, referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. "This is now and forever. This is Palestine for me."
"I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah," Abbas continued. "I believe that the West Bank and Gaza Strip is Palestine, and the other parts is Israel."
The statements were roundly condemned by Abbas' Islamist rivals, leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, where protesters burned his picture and raised placards denouncing him as a traitor.
"It is not permitted for anyone, whoever he may be . . . to give up one inch of this Palestinian land or concede the right of return to our land and homes from which we were expelled," said Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister.
In an attempt at damage control, Abbas explained in an interview Saturday to Egyptian television station al-Hayyat that he was expressing his "personal position," which did not imply a renunciation of the right of return of all Palestinian refugees.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said he is committed to resolving the refugee issue through negotiations, in accordance with the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which calls for a "just" and "agreed upon" solution based on United Nations Resolution 194. That resolution, adopted in 1948, calls for the return of the refugees, or compensation for those who choose not to return.
The issue has come up in previous negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, in which proposals were reportedly made to allow limited numbers of refugees or their descendants into Israel.
Abbas' suggestion that he was willing to waive his right of return was welcomed by some Israeli commentators.
"Abu Mazen took a significant step that could be interpreted as conceding the right of return, certainly conceding a mass right of return," Ben-Dror Yemini, a right-leaning columnist, wrote in the Maariv daily. "If Abu Mazen is willing to give it up, Israel should take this statement seriously."