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Palestinian leader's refugee comments shatter taboo, reignite debate in Israel

Mohamad Torokman / Reuters, file

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waves as he arrives to vote in municipal elections at a polling station in Al-Bireh, West Bank, on Oct. 20.

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 demanded that as many as five million of their compatriots -- original war refugees and their descendants -- be granted the right of return to towns and villages that became part of Israel after its founding in 1948. The establishment of the modern state of Israel is referred to in Arabic as “al Nakba,” or “the catastrophe.”

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Israel, saying an influx of refugees would eliminate its Jewish majority, has proposed they be resettled in a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories it occupied in a 1967 war. Israel also 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 does not claim the right to live there.

Dan Balilty / AP, file

People walk the streets of Safed, northern Israel, on Oct. 12. Safed is the birthplace of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"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.

‘Realistic’ or ‘a failure’?
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."

Later Saturday, Abbas appeared to pull back from his comments, telling Egypt's al-Hayat television in Arabic: "Speaking about Safed was a personal position and it did not mean conceding the right of return."

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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.

Mohammed Saber / EPA

Palestinians supporting Hamas burn posters showing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a demonstration Saturday in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.

Cool reaction from Netanyahu
In Israel, officials debated how serious Abbas was.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his Cabinet reacted coolly, even mistrustfully, to Abbas' remarks.

"I watched President Abbas's interview at the weekend, and I heard that since then he has already managed to recant," Netanyahu told his cabinet, urging Abbas to return to direct peace negotiations, suspended since 2010, to clarify his positions.

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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.

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.

"Peace can be advanced only around the negotiating table, and not through unilateral resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly, which will only put peace further away and bring about instability," Netanyahu said.

"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."

In an editorial on Monday, the left-leaning Haaretz Daily showed support for Abbas, who it described as a “brave and pragmatic Palestinian leader who supports resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully.”

“It is disappointing that the political parties fighting for a spot in the center of the Israeli political map have responded so coolly to the encouraging messages relayed by the Palestinian leader,” the newspaper said.

But the conservative Jerusalem Post was more critical. In an editorial, the newspaper argued that official backtracking on Abbas’ comments by the president and the Palestinian Authority showed that mass Palestinian opinion remained opposed to genuine concessions to Israel.

“Abbas is paying for his own and his leadership’s insistence on saying one thing in public and something else altogether behind closed doors or in an interview aimed at the Israel public,” it said.

Peace process back at the fore
Abbas' remarks 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.

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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.

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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."

NBC News staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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