President Shimon Peres on Saturday praised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the “brave and important” statements he made last week about a future settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying they demonstrated that in Abbas, Israel has a genuine peace partner. Israel, added Peres, should now reach out its hand to the PA leader.

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the PA chief’s rhetoric, saying it was meaningless and constituted “empty promises.”

Peres said Abba’s comments were weighty and serious. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] has proven through his deeds and his words that Israel has a real partner for peace,” Peres said, using Abbas’s nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen rejects terrorism, guarantees that under his leadership he won’t allow the outbreak of a violent third intifada, understands that the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue cannot be in Israel’s territory and to the detriment of Israel’s character, and stretches out his hand to Israel to restart negotiations.”

“Israel is a country that seeks peace and as such we should bravely stretch out our hand for peace to a leader like Abu Mazen because with him, and the brave positions he articulated, there is a real hope for peace,” Peres added.

But in a statement issued by his office, Netanyahu said there was “no connection” between Abbas’s words and deeds. Abbas had “refused to restart negotiations with Israel for four years despite a series of steps taken by the prime minister to resume them — such as an unprecedented construction freeze in the West Bank,” the statement said. “In addition, Abbas refuses to discuss security arrangements that are necessary to protect Israeli citizens.” Still, the statement said Netanyahu’s offer to restart negotiations and meet with Abbas without preconditions still stands.

On Thursday, Abbas had given an unusually moderate interview to Channel 2 News, in which he called for a renewal of peace talks with no preconditions and stated that Palestinians have no territorial claims beyond the 1967 lines.

He also said he personally had no “right” to return permanently to his birthplace in Safed, in today’s northern Israel — an apparent shift on the Palestinian demand for refugees to have a “right of return.” He clarified, nonetheless, that the refugee issue would have to be solved in negotiations based on the Arab League peace initiative, via an “agreed 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)

Abbas’s comments raised the immediate ire of Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who said they were “extremely dangerous” and contradict longtime Palestinian demands. Haniyeh called for a massive protest rally in Gaza Saturday evening. Thousands of residents across the Strip gathered and chanted “Out, out, Abu Mazen” and carried signs that read “I am a Palestinian. Abbas does not represent me.”

Asked in the interview what he considered to be Palestine, Abbas responded 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.”

Interviewer Udi Segal cut in: “Sometimes your official television… speak(s) about Acre and Ramle and Jaffa [all cities within sovereign Israel] as ‘Palestine.’”

“I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine,” said Abbas, “and the other parts (are) Israel.”

Noting that he himself was born in Safed, in what since 1948 has been northern Israel, Abbas said he had visited the town and would like to see it again, but not to make his home there. “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” he said.

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 was no longer 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.

Abbas indicated that he represented the final chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “As long as I am here in this office, there will be no armed third intifada,” he promised, “never.”

“We don’t want to use terror,” Abbas said. “We don’t want to use force. We don’t want to use weapons. We want to use diplomacy. We want to use politics. We want to use negotiations. We want to use peaceful resistance. That’s it.”

“These are significant words,” Peres said Saturday. “We must all treat them with the utmost respect. These positions stand exactly in line with those of Israel and with the clear majority of the population, which supports the solution of two states for two peoples. This is a brave and important public declaration in which Abu Mazen makes clear that his aim for a state is only within the West Bank and Gaza, and not in the territory of the State of Israel.”

A close aide to Abbas said Saturday the PA leader’s comments should not be understood as an end of the Palestinian demand to a right to return. Rather, said the aide, Abbas was hypothetically referring to a time after which Israelis and Palestinians have signed a final-status agreement and ended the decades-old conflict.

“What was said is what is going to happen when the state of Palestine is established alongside Israel,” said Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to Abbas, “and therefore the president never mentioned the word giving up the ‘right of return.’”

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

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and would-be Labor MK Uri Sagi praised Abbas’s comments Saturday. Sagi, a former high-ranking IDF officer who is expected to place high on Labor’s Knesset slate, said he interpreted the interview as representing a newly moderate Palestinian position on the refugee issue.

Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.