JERUSALEM — The Palestinian president has set off a strident debate by shattering a once-inviolable taboo, publicly suggesting his people would have to relinquish claims to ancestral homes in Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas' comments on the refugee issue triggered hot responses from Palestinians and Israelis alike.
In Israel, it suddenly put the long-sidelined issue of peace talks back in the Israeli public's consciousness ahead of parliamentary elections.
Palestinians have maintained for six decades that Arabs who either fled or were expelled from their homes during the fighting that followed Israel's 1948 creation, as well as all their descendants, all have the right to reclaim former properties in Israel.
Israel says a mass return of these people, believed to number about 5 million, would spell the end of Israel as the Jewish state. Also, Israel rejects the concept of a legal right of return.
In the interview, Abbas was asked about his birthplace of Safed — now a town in northern Israel. He told the interviewer that while he would like to visit, he doesn't claim the right to live there.
I want to see Safed. It is my right to see it, but not to live there, he said.
The comments were widely seen as an acknowledgment that return of all the refugees would be impossible. While Palestinian officials privately acknowledge that, they have been reluctant to say so in public.
His adviser, Nimr Hammad, said Abbas was being realistic.