JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli President Shimon Peres hailed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a courageous partner for peace on Saturday after the Palestinian leader made clear his support for a two-state solution to the decades old conflict with Israel.
In an interview with Israeli television broadcast this week, the Western-backed Abbas also hinted that Palestinians who, prior to the 1948 establishment of the Jewish state lived on lands that are now in Israel, do not have a right to return there, comments that sparked an outcry from his Islamist rivals.
"(Abbas's) courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace," Peres said in a statement. "These are significant words ... We must all treat them with the utmost respect."
Peres, a Nobel peace prize laureate, holds a post that is largely ceremonial and he has little influence on the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government. As prime minister more than a decade ago, Peres headed a left-wing government that actively pursued peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has repeatedly portrayed Abbas as a peace partner, urging him to return to negotiations, despite Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's description of the Palestinian president as an obstacle to peace.
There have been no direct peace talks since 2010, when the Palestinians refused to resume negotiations unless Israel suspended settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which they say is killing off all chances of them ever creating a coherent state.
Abbas has defied Israel and the United States by planning to ask the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians to a non-member state. Facing possible punitive Israeli and U.S. sanctions, Abbas has promised an immediate return to peace talks after the U.N. vote, which the Palestinians are likely to win.
The Islamist group Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas in 2007, condemned the comments and thousands of its members rallied in protest and burned posters of Abbas.
"No one, regardless of who he may be ... has the right to cede a single tract of the land of Palestine or to cede the right of return," Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told reporters.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction historically allied with Abbas, even called on the president to be questioned by his own Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said issues like the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future state must be resolved in negotiations with Israel. He accused rival groups, without singling any of them out, of exploiting the president's comments to "carry out a coup" against him.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Jon Hemming)