JERUSALEM — 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.
"Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified," Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.
Netanyahu's reaction contrasted with that of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who on Saturday praised Abbas' comments to an Israeli TV station as a "brave and important public declaration" by a "real partner for peace."
In an interview broadcast Friday on Israel's Channel 2, Abbas attempted to reach out to the Israeli public after a protracted stalemate in peace efforts. He 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 accord. Israel rejects the idea as a demographic threat to its existence.
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."
The statement was condemned by his Islamist rivals, leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, where protesters burned his picture and raised placards denouncing him as a traitor.