JERUSALEM: Israel was on Sunday split over the weight of remarks by Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in which he appeared to give up on the right of refugees to return to homes they lost or fled from in the 1948 war.
His remarks were immediately welcomed as "courageous" by Israeli President Shimon Peres, but sparked a backlash of protest in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip where thousands burned pictures of the Palestinian leader.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinian leader of going back on his remarks shortly after giving the interview, adding that the Palestinians' real stance would only become clear in direct peace talks.
"I watched the interview with President Abbas at the weekend. I heard that since then, he has gone back on his words," he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in remarks his relayed by his office.
"Only through direct negotiations can we clarify what the real positions are. If Abu Mazen (Abbas) is really serious about advancing peace, then from my perspective we can sit down together immediately," he said.
Several Israeli commentators hailed Abbas's statements but some rightwing cabinet ministers from the ruling Likud party dismissed it as an ill-disguised attempt to meddle in the upcoming Israeli elections.
In a Friday interview with Israel's Channel 2 television, Abbas said he had no intention of trying to regain his childhood home in the northern town of Safed, today located inside Israel.
"I want to see Safed," he said. "It's my right to see it but not to live there."
But Abbas's spokesman quickly insisted that his comments did not represent a policy shift on the right of return, one of the thorniest issues of the conflict, which he said could only be resolved through negotiations with Israel.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak hailed his stance as "very important because of its clarity" in an interview with the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.
And Israel's top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper said it was clear that Abbas who is popularly known as Abu Mazen had taken a "realistic and very courageous look" at the issue.
"There has been increasing reconciliation within the Palestinian leadership... to the idea that the right of return cannot be implemented," wrote commentator Roni Shaked.
Giving up the right of return would be "tantamount to giving up on the dream of greater Palestine," he said, in a step which the Palestinian public was not ready to accept.
"That disparity between the leadership and the general public is enormous. Abu Mazen's step might begin a debate and set in motion a process of coming to terms with reality, turning the right of return into a dream that will never come true."
But two cabinet ministers dismissed Abbas's remarks as a ploy to influence the upcoming Israeli election in January.
"Abu Mazen's move is transparent. The aim was to meddle in the Israeli elections and make the Palestinian issue a focus of the campaign," said Education Minister Gideon Saar in a statement.
"Abu Mazen has pretended to give up the right of return just to make sure that the Palestinian issues is on the agenda of the upcoming Israeli elections," agreed Home Front Defence Minister Avi Dichter in remarks on Israel's public radio.
There are more than four million Palestinian refugees scattered across the region those who fled or were expelled when Israel was created in 1948, and their descendants.
The Palestinians have always demanded that the Jewish state recognise their right of return to homes in modern-day Israel in keeping with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
Israel rejects the right of return, which would end its Jewish majority.