JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian president on Sunday called the Holocaust "the most heinous crime" of modern history, voicing a rare acknowledgment of Jewish suffering shortly before Israel held its annual memorial for victims of the Nazi genocide.
President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement appeared to be aimed at reaching out to Israeli public opinion at a time of deep crisis in U.S.-backed peace efforts. Israelis frequently claim the Palestinians are not sincere about wanting peace.
While Israel's national Holocaust memorial said Mr. Abbas' comments may be a step in the right direction, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed them aside.
He said Mr. Abbas' renewed attempts to reconcile with the Islamic militant movement Hamas raised doubts about the Palestinian leader's intentions. Hamas, a movement sworn to Israel's destruction, has questioned the Holocaust and blocked the subject from being taught in schools in the Gaza Strip.
"President Abbas can't have it both ways. He can't say the Holocaust was terrible, but at the same time embrace those who deny the Holocaust and seek to perpetrate another destruction of the Jewish people," Mr. Netanyahu told CNN.
For Mr. Abbas, however, conciliatory language marked a breakthrough of sorts.
Denials or attempts to minimize the Holocaust, which saw the systematic killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany in World War II, are widespread in the Arab world.
Many Palestinians fear that if they acknowledge the Holocaust, they will diminish their own claims based on years of suffering, including their uprooting during Israel's 1948 creation and decades under Israeli occupation.
Mr. Abbas himself has been accused of minimizing the scope of the Holocaust in a doctoral dissertation in the 1970s, though in recent years he's edged toward acknowledging Jewish suffering.
Mr. Abbas' office said he discussed the Holocaust in a meeting with an American rabbi, Marc Schneier, who visited Mr. Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah last week.
Mr. Abbas told Rabbi Schneier that "what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era," according to comments carried by the Palestinian news agency WAFA on Sunday.
The agency quoted Mr. Abbas as expressing his "sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed."
Mr. Abbas said the Holocaust was an expression of the idea of ethnic discrimination and racism, and connected it to the Palestinian suffering of today.
"The Palestinian people, who suffer from injustice, oppression and [are] denied freedom and peace, are the first to demand to lift the injustice and racism that befell other peoples subjected to such crimes," he said.
Israel's official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, said it hoped Mr. Abbas' comment may "signal a change" in the Arab world, where "Holocaust denial and revisionism are sadly prevalent." It said it expected Mr. Abbas' stance to be "reflected in [Palestinian] websites, curricula and discourse."
Mr. Abbas' statement came as the latest U.S. attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was on the verge of collapse. He urged Israel not to walk away.
"On the incredibly sad commemoration of Holocaust Day, we call on the Israeli government to seize the current opportunity to conclude a just and comprehensive peace in the region, based on the two states' vision, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security," Mr. Abbas said.
At the start of negotiations in late July, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had set an end-of-April target date for a peace deal. He later lowered expectations, calling for the outlines of an agreement and, in a last attempt, for a deal on extending the talks.
However, none of Mr. Kerry's objectives appear within reach, and it appears unlikely talks will be salvaged by Tuesday's deadline.
Mr. Netanyahu called on Mr. Abbas to tear up his new pact with the Hamas militant group as Israel reassesses the peace process.
"I will not negotiate with those who seek to exterminate peace with my country," Mr. Netanyahu said of Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks and which the U.S. and Europe consider a terrorist organization.
Bloomberg News contributed.