JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced skepticism on Sunday at President Mahmoud Abbas' remark on Israeli TV that he did not seek to permanently return to his native Safed.
Abbas's comments on Thursday that he had no permanent claim on the town, from which he was driven during a 1948 war, were 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 UN 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 told Channel 2 television: "I visited Safed before, once. But I want to see Safed. It's my right to see it, but not live there."
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."
On Saturday, Abbas clarified to Egypt's al-Hayat television: "Speaking about Safed was a personal position and it did not mean conceding the right of return."
Addressing his cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu called on Abbas to re-engage without preconditions.
"Peace can be advanced only around the negotiating table, and not through unilateral resolutions at the UN 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 a Jan. 22 general election that opinion polls show the prime minister will win, said Abbas "can no longer deliver the goods" since he lost Gaza to Hamas.
The last peace talks collapsed in 2010 after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial settlement construction freeze.
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, as per international law.
Israel, saying an influx of refugees would eliminate its Jewish majority, has proposed that refugees be resettled in a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories it has occupied since a 1967 war.