JERUSALEM -- The question seemed simple enough: Would President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority like to go to Safed, the city in northern Israel where he was born in 1935?
But there are no easy questions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Abbas's answer, in an interview broadcast on Israeli television on Friday night -- yes, he would like to visit, but not to live there; Safed is part of Israel -- was widely interpreted as a surprising concession on the demands of Palestinians to return to their pre-1948 homes, perhaps the most intractable and emotional of all the unsettled issues in the decades-old dispute.
The remark set off angry protests across the Gaza Strip, in which demonstrators set Mr. Abbas's picture aflame. Palestinian rivals and commentators denounced him as a traitor, or worse. In Israel, the response was strong if mixed, and the issue dominated political chatter on Sunday after weeks in which the Palestinian question had been all but absent from the debate ahead of the Jan. 22 elections.
President Abbas himself beat a hasty retreat. In an interview with an Arabic newspaper published Sunday, he said he was talking only of his personal aspirations, not about giving up anyone's rights, and called the refugees "a sacred matter" that could be resolved only as part of a larger agreement through negotiations.
The controversy could further complicate Mr. Abbas's planned bid for nonmember statehood at the United Nations General Assembly this month, a move that has generated intense opposition from Israel and the United States but that has failed to generate much enthusiasm among his own people. His popularity had already nose-dived over the past year amid a stalemate in the peace process, severe budgetary shortfalls, a worsening rift with the rival Hamas faction that controls Gaza and growing dissent within his own party, Fatah.
"He has been doing many mistakes, and this is one of them -- his vocabulary was totally wrong," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, based in Jerusalem. "He underestimated the reaction; he underestimated the anger and the frustration in the society; he underestimated his constituency. It's very clear that he's not the hero, he's not the liberator, he's not the leader."
There are about five million Palestinians scattered around the world who are descendants of the 750,000 who lost homes during the war that led to Israel's establishment, many of them still clutching keys in hopes of someday returning. But Israelis see such ambitions as an existential threat to their state, and negotiators have tried to distinguish the moral question of the "right of return" from the practical one. Documents released in 2011 show that the two sides have traded numbers about how many Palestinians would be allowed into Israel, ranging from 5,000 to 100,000, and that Mr. Abbas himself said in 2009 that "it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million."
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, said Palestinians "are willing to make big compromises on the right of return," but only in exchange for a state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital (a point that Mr. Abbas emphasized in the television interview, though it was largely lost in the frenzy over his Safed remark).
"Unless there is a final peace settlement with Israel," said Mr. Abusada, himself the child of refugees from a village near the Gaza Strip, "they are going to keep holding onto these keys, to keep holding onto these memories."
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in the West Bank, said his polls had consistently shown that a majority of Palestinians would support a deal in which only a fraction of the refugees, 100,000 or 150,000, were allowed back. But 30 percent see the right of return as their "most vital goal," second only to the establishment of a Palestinian state, according to the most recent survey, in September.
"This is a battle over narrative," Mr. Shikaki explained. "Normally when people say something along the lines of what he said, they would distinguish that from the right of return. He's now essentially given Hamas an opportunity to try and use this occasion to mobilize against him."
Hamas seized it. The party's prime minister, Ismail Haniya, called Mr. Abbas's remarks "extremely dangerous," and hundreds of Hamas's supporters took to the streets in Gaza on Saturday evening, carrying banners reading "Abbas does not represent me," and "Pioneer of concessions, it's time to quit." Some burned posters showing Mr. Abbas with Israel's current and former prime ministers.
In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, called Mr. Abbas's statements "grave and unprecedented." From London, Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of Al Quds Al Arabi, wrote a column under the headline "Please Do Not Speak on Our Behalf."
"How can we expect President Abbas to defend the right to return seriously and faithfully while he himself disbelieves it and has no intention to achieve it for himself and for his children and grandchildren?" asked Mr. Atwan, who was born in a refugee camp. "This is our land and this is our right; and thus, we demand him not to speak on our behalf if he does not wish to be one of us."
Although Mr. Abbas may have damaged himself among his own people, he did succeed in what many believed was the goal of the interview with Channel 2 News: inserting the Palestinian question into Israel's election campaign, which has so far been more about Iran and domestic social issues. His tone was far more conciliatory than his United Nations speech on Sept. 27, when he accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid.
President Shimon Peres, who is being courted to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, issued an unusual Saturday-night statement calling the comments "courageous" and Mr. Abbas "a real partner for peace." Mr. Netanyahu, in turn, said there was "no connection" between the statements and Mr. Abbas's "actual actions," asserting that he had refused to negotiate.
On Sunday, Israeli leaders from the right and left rushed to radio programs to either denounce or embrace Mr. Abbas's comments: Uzi Landau of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which recently struck a partnership with Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party, called Mr. Abbas "a serial trickster, an obsessive liar," while Amir Peretz of the Labor Party said Mr. Abbas had given "some sign to the Israeli public to make it clear to them that there is a partner" for peace.
Two centrist politicians who are considering political comebacks -- Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister -- each used the remarks to contrast their productive negotiations with Mr. Abbas with Mr. Netanyahu's stalemate.
Yossi Alpher, co-editor of a Web site on the conflict that recently shut down, bitterlemons.net, said that on a "metaphoric level" Mr. Abbas had "offered Israelis a genuine concession."
The interview, in which Mr. Abbas also vowed that there would not be another violent Palestinian uprising, was a "fairly obvious attempt to present a more moderate point of view in hopes of strengthening the Israeli left and center," Mr. Alpher said. "The test will be whether he is consistent and whether this is part of a more general campaign to present a softer Palestinian negotiating position."
Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza City.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.