Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas clarified in an Egyptian TV interview that he had not intended to undermine the traditional Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians to Israel, when he made seemingly moderate comments on the subject in an Israeli TV interview last Thursday.

That was “a personal position,” he said, when asked by his interviewer on Egypt’s Al-Hayat TV station late Saturday about his declaration that he would like to visit his birthplace in Safed, but did believe he had the right to live there permanently.

“It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” Abbas said of the northern Israeli city on Israel’s Channel 2 on Thursday night, adding that “Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever… This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah… I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine,” said Abbas, “and the other parts (are) Israel.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to Channel 2 News (photo credit: Channel 2 screen capture)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to Channel 2 News (photo credit: Channel 2 screen capture)

Those comments were praised as “brave,” by Israel’s President Shimon Peres, and dismissed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman as deceptive and empty rhetoric. Among Palestinians, they were attacked by Hamas as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Several thousand people attended a Hamas-organized demonstration against Abbas in Gaza on Saturday night.

Clarifying his stance in the Al Hayat interview, Abbas said, “Talking about Safed is a personal position and does not mean giving up the right of return.” Indeed, he went on, “No-one can give up the right of return as all international texts and Arab and Islamic decisions refer to a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue, according to UN Resolution 194, with the term ‘agreed upon’ meaning agreement with the Israeli side.”

“I do not change my position,” Abbas stressed. “What I say to the Palestinians is no different from what I say to the Israelis or the Americans or anyone.”

The refugee issue, he went on, was a core issue for resolution in final status talks, “based on UN Resolution 194,” and “will be subjected to a popular referendum and people will either accept it or reject it.”

Udi Segal, who interviewed Abbas for Channel 2, said the PA chief had said much the same in their conversation, albeit in a different tone.

Indeed, Abbas did tell Channel 2 that the refugee issue would have to be solved in negotiations based on the Arab League peace initiative, via an “agreed-upon basis” with neither side able to “impose” a solution upon the other.

Gazans on Saturday protesting PA President Mahmoud Abbas's recent comments on Palestinians' right of return to Israel. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Gazans on Saturday protesting PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent comments on Palestinians’ right of return to Israel. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The formal Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinians and their descendants who used to live in what is today Israel has been a key obstacle in peace talks. An influx on that scale would radically shift Israel’s demographic balance, so that it would no longer be a Jewish state — a process no foreseeable Israeli government would sanction. Israel has said the Palestinians must permanently house their refugees in a Palestinian state whose modalities must be negotiated with Israel, just as Israel absorbed Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East.

In Thursday’s interview, whose moderate content contrasted deeply with the bitterly hostile speech he delivered to the United Nations General Assembly a month ago, Abbas also urged Netanyahu to return to the negotiating table. His only condition was that Netanyahu declare his agreement to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, he said.

Netanyahu responded Sunday that his offer to Abbas, for a renewal of peace talks without preconditions, remained open.

Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to Abbas, had said on Saturday that “the president never mentioned the word giving up the ‘right of return.’”

Rather, Hammad said, Abbas was being “realistic,” noting, “He knows he can’t bring back five-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees to Israel.”

Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.