At a time when the Middle East peace process appears stymied, Israel received an unexpected olive branch when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the Holocaust and expressed sympathy with its victims.
"What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime known by mankind in modern times," said Abbas, according to a statement published Sunday by the Palestinian government news agency WAFA.
Abbas expressed sympathy for the families who died at the hands of the Nazis and called the world to "safeguard the oppressed and weak wherever they are found." The Palestinians, "still oppressed and denied freedom and peace," are the first to stand up for those facing such crimes, he said.
The Palestinian leader made his comments in response to a question last week during a meeting with Marc Schneier, an American rabbi promoting interfaith understanding.
Abbas' comments were made public Sunday as Israel is set to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day starting Sunday evening. It was the strongest language about the Holocaust ever used by the Palestinian president, who has been branded as a Holocaust denier by Israeli officials in the past.
One Palestinian educator's efforts to increase awareness of the subject met with sharp criticism, underscoring the sensitivity of potential Palestinian acknowledgment.
Last month, professor Mohammed Dajani of Al-Quds university in Jerusalem took a group of students to visit the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, causing an online uproar that prompted the university to make clear the trip was not an official activity.
Despite the criticism, Dajani stood by his decision. It was a "moral imperative" to recognize the Holocaust as an historic fact and important to learn it to "understand the psyche" of the other side, he told Israeli media.
Drawing a link to the present, Abbas used the occasion of the "incredibly sad commemoration of Holocaust Day" to urge Israel's government "to take this opportunity to achieve just and comprehensive peace" based on the two-state solution.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also tied the two together, from the opposite direction.
"Hamas denies the Holocaust even as it attempts to create an additional Holocaust by destroying the state of Israel. It is with this Hamas that Abu Mazen chose to form an alliance," said Netanyahu, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
Israel has announced peace talks would be suspended so long as Abbas moved ahead with the reconciliation announced last week with Hamas.
At the start of a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu called on Abbas to "disavow this alliance with Hamas and return to the path of true peace."
Also Sunday, the Cabinet approved an urgent addition of about $270 million in aid to Holocaust survivors that would bring government support up about $1.3 billion a year.
A recently published study revealed that a quarter of the 193,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel live below the poverty line, and 60% experience financial difficulties, with one in five saying they have had to go without food or medicine at times during the last two years. Many survivors say excessive bureaucracy hampers access to existing benefits.
While the need for improved support for survivors has widespread support, another government plan is drawing controversy. Last week, Education Minister Shai Piron unveiled a plan to expand Holocaust studies in schools and start the subject with kindergarten children as young as five, raising concerns among some critics about exposing the very young to the fear of annihilation.