Israel opposes the U.N. bid, accusing Abbas of trying to sidestep the negotiating process. It says the borders of a Palestinian state can be determined only through direct negotiations.
"I think President Abbas wanted to convey a message of assurance to the Israelis ahead of their elections, that he wants to have a state within the 1967 borders and doesn't seek war or to delegitimize Israel," said Palestinian analyst Bassem Zbaidi. "He told them, I'm not going to the U.N. to besiege you, on the contrary, I'm going to make peace with you."
Abbas' remarks suddenly returned the moribund state of peacemaking to the center of Israeli political discourse. With peace efforts frozen for the past four years, Israeli leaders have been preoccupied with Iran's suspect nuclear program and local economic issues, and the Palestinian issue has not been a major factor in the campaign for Jan. 22 parliamentary elections.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who has been closely involved in peace efforts over the past two decades, said Palestinians have assured Israeli counterparts that they would be willing to agree to this compromise on the refugee issue.
"We can't say that we don't have a partner for peacemaking. Abu Mazen has expressed willingness to forfeit the 'right of return' in closed talks, too," Barak said, using Abbas' nickname.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn't impressed, noting that Abbas subsequently backtracked in an interview with an Egyptian TV station. "No one can forfeit the right of return," Abbas told Egypt's Al-Hayyat TV on Saturday.
"This just proves how important direct, unconditional negotiations are," Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "Only in direct negotiations is it possible to find out what the real positions are."
Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused Abbas of trying to tilt the results of Israel's Jan. 22 election.
"He is meddling on behalf of the (Israeli) left ... which represents Palestinian interests," he told Army Radio, noting that the Palestinian president takes a much harder line against Israel when speaking to his people in Arabic.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who made a peace proposal to Abbas in 2008, issued a harsh statement accusing Netanyahu of missing a critical opportunity to pursue peace.
"This policy toward the only partner possible for peace between us and the Palestinians is irresponsible and can damage the most vital Israeli interests," Olmert said. He said the Abbas interview "proves to the Israeli public that there is someone to speak to and things to discuss with the goal of solving this bloody conflict."
Additional reporting from Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank.