President Barack Obama's administration 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 fundraiser for Obama's Democratic Party, was expressing his personal opinion.
White House spokesman Jay Carney separately defended the administration's record, saying it has opposed "one-sided" condemnation of Israel at the UN Human Rights Council and spoken out against incitement in the Arab world.
"This administration has consistently stood up against anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel, and we will continue to do so," Carney 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."
Pointing to his own experience, Gutman said he has been warmly received in Europe including by Muslims and did not believe that anti-Semitism "for the sake of hating" was on the rise in the continent that produced the Holocaust.
But Gutman said a new, more complex form of anti-Semitism was growing, in which Jews are targeted because of resentment over the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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"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.
"Were a lasting peace in the Middle East to be reached, were joint and cooperative Israeli-Arab attentions turned to focus instead on such serious, common threats such as Iran, this second type of ethnic tension and bigotry here in Europe -- which is clearly growing today -- would clearly abate," he said.
Gutman later issued a statement to stress that that he condemns all forms of anti-Semitism, adding: "I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way."
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.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry called Gutman's statement "part of a pattern of hostility" toward Israel, saying: "The long and ugly history of anti-Semitism has seen all too many episodes of apologists justifying hatred of the Jews."
But Senator John Kerry, a key Obama ally who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused the Republicans of "making everything up."
"The president has been as supportive, if not more supportive, than any president in American history," Kerry told AFP.
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 supporters of Israel in general.
Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta demanded that Israel "get to the damn table" for peace talks and Israeli ministers reacted angrily after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted expressing concern over the future of democracy in the Jewish state.