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 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’s nickname.
Netanyahu’s reaction contrasted with that of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who on Saturday praised Abbas’s 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.