Comments mark a rare acknowledgment by an Arab leader of Jewish suffering during the Nazi genocide

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime” of modern history and expressed his sympathy for the victims, a rare acknowledgment by an Arab leader of Jewish suffering during the Nazi genocide.

Mr. Abbas’ comments appeared, in part, aimed at reaching out to Israeli public opinion at a time of deep crisis in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The remarks were published by the Palestinian official news agency WAFA just hours before the start of Israel’s annual Holocaust commemoration.

The decades-old conflict has been accompanied by mutual mistrust among Israelis and Palestinians about the other side’s intentions.

Many Israelis fear that the Palestinians aren’t truly ready to accept a Jewish presence in the Holy Land, and that widespread ignorance or even denial of the Holocaust among Palestinians is an expression of that attitude.

Denials or attempts to minimise the Holocaust, which saw the systematic killing of 6 million Jews 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’ 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 Mr. Schneier that “what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,” WAFA said in a statement in English published on Sunday.

The wording in an earlier WAFA statement in Arabic was slightly different, with Mr. Abbas using the phrase “ugliest crime” instead of “the most heinous crime”.

In the English statement, WAFA 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.

Mr. Abbas’ statement came as the latest U.S. attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was on the verge of collapse. 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.

Last week, Israel suspended negotiations in response to a reconciliation deal between Mr. Abbas and his political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas. At the time, Israeli leaders alleged Mr. Abbas preferred peace with the militants, who have called for Israel’s destruction, to peace with Israel.

Speaking on Sunday before a Cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu largely dismissed Mr. Abbas’ statement.

“Instead of making declarations intended to pacify world opinion, (Abbas) needs to choose between the agreement with Hamas, a terror group that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and denies the Holocaust, and between true peace with Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Mr. Abbas has said he is ready to extend negotiations beyond Tuesday’s deadline, provided Israel halts settlement construction and keeps a promise to release a group of veteran Palestinian prisoners. Those are steps Israel has refused to take and which initially imperilled the talks.

Mr. Abbas said on Saturday that any interim unity government with Hamas would be based on his political platform, not that of Hamas.

On Sunday, he said Israel must not 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.

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