US backs envoy after Israel remarks

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President Barack Obama's administration on Monday rejected Republican calls to fire the US ambassador to Belgium after he said that the Middle East conflict was partly to blame for anti-Semitism.

Ambassador Howard Gutman, who is Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor, said in a speech that a new type of anti-Semitism has emerged in Europe that is not "classic bigotry" but instead linked to the conflict and hence resolvable.

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, both called on Obama to dismiss Gutman and renewed charges that his administration was not supportive enough of Israel.

"We have full confidence in him," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. He said that Gutman, a political appointee and longtime fund-raiser for Obama's Democratic Party, was expressing his personal opinion.

"He was sharing his views on an issue. Our commitment to Israel's security is ironclad," Toner said.

"Israel has no greater friend or ally than the United States and we condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms," Toner said.

Gutman, who was addressing a conference last week on anti-Semitism in Europe, opened his speech by apologizing for not "saying what you would expect me to say" by decrying bigotry against Jews in general.

Pointing to his own experience, Gutman said that he has been warmly received in Europe and had no basis to believe that violent anti-Semitism was on the rise in the continent that produced the Holocaust.

But Gutman said that a new, more complex form of anti-Semitism was growing, in which Jews are targeted because of resentment over the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"It is the area where every new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry," he said.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, accused Gutman of "rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism."

"The ambassador's comments demonstrate the Obama administration's failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally," Romney said in a statement.

Republicans have seized on Obama's calls for Israel to cease settlements and his rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking to increase their standing among Jewish voters and other supporters of Israel.

© 2011 AFP

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