President Shimon Peres on Sunday hailed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a great leader, calling him the best peace partner Israel has ever had, and saying he was “risking his life” to take a principled position against terrorism.

Peres’s comments in praise of Abbas contrasted starkly with a far more wary assessment delivered earlier in the day by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking to a room packed with journalists from around the world on the first day of the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem, Peres focused in particular on Abbas’s demand last Wednesday, issued at a meeting in Saudi Arabia of foreign ministers from the Muslim world, that the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped on June 12 be returned.

“Abbas is the best partner Israel has ever had, and has now,” Peres began, in answer to a question from The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, who was moderating the session. “I have known him for 20 years. I think he’s a man of his word. I think he’s a man of courage.”

President Shimon Peres speaks (with ToI's David Horovitz) during the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem on June 22, 2014. (Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

President Shimon Peres speaks (with ToI’s David Horovitz) during the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem on June 22, 2014. (Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

The president added that what Abbas “did right now before a totally Arab audience in Saudi Arabia — being clear on peace, being clear on terror, risking his life,” was “not a simple position.” Peres said he did not know of “anyone else on the Arab side who would do it.”

The president, who is scheduled to head to the US this week for a final meeting with President Barack Obama before ending his seven-year presidential term next month, then called Abbas “a great leader” and said Israel should “not miss the opportunity to continue the peace process” with him.

Peres’s warm comments about Abbas diverged sharply from remarks earlier Sunday by Netanyahu, who said Abbas’s condemnation rang hollow as long as he maintained a unity government with Hamas.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that once Hamas is exposed internationally for initiating the June 12 kidnapping, previous remarks by Abbas, in which he condemned the kidnapping, “will be put to the test in practice. His remarks will be tested not only by actions to return the boys home but by his willingness to dissolve the unity government with Hamas, which abducted the youths and calls for the destruction of Israel.”

Peres: ‘Pope Francis is the best Pope the Jewish people have had for 2,000 years’

Answering questions from the assembled Jewish journalists, Peres also spoke of the kidnappers of the three Israeli teenagers and said, “They are criminals who have no respect for the law and no respect for human life. The kidnapping was a terrible event and we continue to do everything we can to bring the [boys] back.”

Peres was also asked about Pope Francis and he said with a smile, “Pope Francis is the best Pope the Jewish people have had for 2,000 years. He has returned the Vatican to values. Amid the anti-Semitism that we see in Europe, he invited Jews and Muslims to the Vatican, he brought us together in a spirit of brotherhood.”