Josef Federman

JERUSALEM: The Palestinian president on Sunday called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime” of modern history, voicing a rare acknowledgment of Jewish suffering ahead of Israel’s annual memorial today for victims of the Nazi genocide.

President Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement appeared to be aimed at reaching out to Israeli public opinion at a time of deep crisis in U.S.-backed peace efforts.

Israelis frequently claim the Palestinians are not sincere about wanting peace.

While representatives of Israel’s national Holocaust memorial said Abbas’ comments may be a step in the right direction, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed them aside.

He said Abbas’ renewed attempts to reconcile with the Islamic militant movement Hamas raised doubts about the Palestinian leader’s intentions. Hamas, a movement sworn to Israel’s destruction, has questioned the Holocaust and blocked the subject from being taught in schools in the Gaza Strip.

“President Abbas can’t have it both ways. He can’t say the Holocaust was terrible, but at the same time embrace those who deny the Holocaust and seek to perpetrate another destruction of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu told CNN.

For Abbas, however, conciliatory language marked a breakthrough of sorts.

Denials or attempts to minimize the Holocaust, which saw the systematic killing of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany 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.

Abbas himself has been accused of minimizing the scope of the Holocaust in a doctoral dissertation in the 1970s, though in recent years he’s edged toward acknowledging Jewish suffering.

Abbas’ office said he discussed the Holocaust in a meeting with an American rabbi, Marc Schneier, who visited Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah last week.

Abbas told Schneier 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 comments carried by the Palestinian news agency WAFA on Sunday.

The agency quoted Abbas as expressing his “sympathy with the families of the victims and many other innocent people who were killed.”

Abbas said the Holocaust was an expression of the idea of ethnic discrimination and racism, and connected it to the Palestinian suffering of today.