Netanyahu sceptical of Abbas hint of no return for refugees

Sun Nov 4, 2012 5:36pm GMT

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced scepticism on Sunday over an apparent concession from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a major sticking point in any future peace negotiations.

Comments by Abbas on Thursday that he had no permanent claim on the town of Safed, from which he was driven during a 1948 war, were widely seen as hinting he was dropping a demand for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to homes now in Israel.

"I watched President Abbas's interview at the weekend, and I heard that since then he has already managed to recant," Netanyahu told his cabinet, urging Abbas to return to direct peace negotiations, suspended since 2010, to clarify his positions.

Abbas's remarks, to Israeli Channel 2 TV, were also interpreted by some commentators as an attempt to soften his defiance of Israel and the United States over his plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians to a non-member state.

Touching on the refugee question - one of the most emotional issues for Palestinians in their dispute with Israel - Abbas said: "I visited Safed before, once. But I want to see Safed. It's my right to see it, but not live there."

But on Saturday, Abbas appeared to pull back from his comments, telling Egypt's al-Hayat television in Arabic: "Speaking about Safed was a personal position and it did not mean conceding the right of return."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is considering whether to challenge Netanyahu in a January 22 election, said that in his own peace talks with Abbas, the Palestinian side had made clear it had no intention of changing the demographic character of the Jewish state through a mass return of refugees.

At those U.S.-backed negotiations held between 2006 and 2009, which failed to clinch a land-for-peace deal, the possibility that Israel would allow a few thousand refugees to return on humanitarian grounds was raised, Olmert added in his statement he said was in response to reporters' questions.   Continued...

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 4, 2012. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool
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