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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.
Abbas has been refusing to resume peace talks with Israel unless it halts settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, construction that Palestinians say will deny them a viable state. He has however promised to return to negotiations immediately after the U.N. status upgrade vote.
Washington also wants Israel to halt settlement building, but backs its call for Abbas to return to talks rather than seek statehood at the United Nations first. Abbas could face punitive U.S. and Israeli sanctions if, as expected, he wins U.N. approval for the unilateral move.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate who has little influence on the policies of Netanyahu's right-wing government, swiftly praised Abbas over his Channel 2 interview.
"(His) courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace," Peres said in a statement.
But in the Gaza Strip, seized by Hamas Islamists from Abbas's Fatah group in 2007, thousands rallied against the Palestinian leader. Hamas said no one can "cede the right of return" or "a single tract of the land of Palestine".
Palestinians have demanded that as many as five million of their compatriots - original war refugees and their descendants - be granted the right of return to towns and villages that became part of Israel after its founding in 1948.
Israel, saying an influx of refugees would eliminate its Jewish majority, has proposed they be resettled in a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories it occupied in a 1967 war.
Addressing his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said Abbas should re-engage without preconditions.
"Peace can be advanced only around the negotiating table, and not through unilateral resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly, which will only put peace further away and bring about instability," Netanyahu said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right Yisrael Beitenu party is running jointly with Netanyahu's Likud in an election which opinion polls show the prime minister will win, said Abbas "can no longer deliver the goods" since he lost Gaza to Hamas.
Editing by Stephen Powell