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Palestinian Leader Shifts on Holocaust

File -- In this Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 file photo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, attends Muslim prayers at a mosque adjacent to his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas called the Holocaust "the ugliest crime humanity has known in modern history." His comments, published Sunday by the Palestinian official news agency WAFA, marked a rare acknowledgment by an Arab leader of Jewish suffering during the Nazi genocide. Some 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

File -- In this Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 file photo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, attends Muslim prayers at a mosque adjacent to his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas called the Holocaust "the ugliest crime humanity has known in modern history." His comments, published Sunday by the Palestinian official news agency WAFA, marked a rare acknowledgment by an Arab leader of Jewish suffering during the Nazi genocide. Some 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

Jerusalem — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday issued a statement calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime” against humanity in modern times and expressing sympathy with families of the victims.

The statement, on the eve of Israel’s observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the first of its kind by a Palestinian leader, and appeared to be part of an effort to reach out to Israelis after a reconciliation deal reached last week between Abbas’s Fatah movement and the militant Islamist group Hamas that prompted Israel to suspend U.S.-brokered peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Abbas’ declarations, saying that they were meant to “placate international public opinion” after the Palestinian leader had made a pact with Hamas, a group that “denies the Holocaust while trying to create another Holocaust by destroying the state of Israel.”

Abbas’ statement on the Holocaust came a day after the Palestinian leader said that the planned unity government under his leadership would recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Since the announcement of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, analysts have debated whether the deal might meet conditions set by the group of Middle East mediators known as the Quartet — the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations for a Palestinian government to qualify for diplomatic recognition. Those conditions are recognition of Israel, non-violence and adherence to previous agreements.

Robert Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said in a statement after meeting Abbas on Thursday that he was assured that the unity accord would be carried out “on the basis of PLO commitments” to those conditions.

Hamas spokesmen have drawn a distinction between the positions of the group, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, and the negotiations with Israel, conducted by Abbas on behalf of the PLO.

“You don’t need organizations to recognize Israel,” Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, told the Israeli news website Ynet last week. “It’s enough that the Palestine Liberation Organization — the representative of the Palestinian people — recognizes the State of Israel.”

On Sunday, however, Netanyahu made it clear that Abbas’ statements had not altered Israel’s position that it would not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by a group it considers a terrorist organization.

“I will not negotiate with those who seek to exterminate my country,” Netanyahu said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. He said Abbas was engaging in “damage control” and trying to “have it both ways” by lamenting the Holocaust even as he is accepting the backing of Hamas.

“Abbas has to decide whether he wants a pact with Hamas or peace with Israel,” Netanyahu said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “He cannot speak out of both sides of his mouth.”

Sunday’s statement by Abbas emerged from his meeting a week earlier with Marc Schneier, an American rabbi who heads a group that promotes Muslim-Jewish understanding.Schneier suggested that Abbas make a statement to mark the annual Holocaust commemoration.

Issued by the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, Abbas’s remarks were presented as a reply to a question from Rabbi Schneier.

“President Mahmoud Abbas said 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 the English text. “He expressed his sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed by the Nazis.”

Abbas asserted that “the Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against,” the statement said. “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.”

The Holocaust is a contentious subject among Palestinians, many of whom view it as the root cause of their displacement and exile in the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel. Attempts to deny or minimize the Holocaust are common among Palestinians and in the Arab world.

Some Israeli Cabinet ministers have denounced Abbas as a Holocaust denier, citing his doctoral thesis, published as a book in in 1983, in which he questioned the accepted number of Jewish victims and asserted that the Zionist leadership collaborated with the Nazis to encourage immigration to what later would become Israel.

Abbas has since recanted, saying in interviews that he would not contest the figure of 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazis in World War II.

On Saturday, Abbas sought to blunt criticism of his faction’s agreement with Hamas by asserting that a planned unity government under his leadership would adhere to his policies.

“I recognize Israel and it will recognize Israel,” he said at a meeting of the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “I reject violence and terrorism and the government will also reject violence and terrorism.”

Under terms of the reconciliation accord - the latest of several which have not been carried out - an interim government of non-partisan technocrats is to be formed in five weeks to prepare for elections six months later. The government is to handle domestic affairs, leaving foreign policy to Abbas.