Controversial speeches by administration officials have given President Obama’s opponents space to hit back just a week after he touted his strong support cooperation with Israel while courting Jewish donors in New York.
Following comments critical of Israel’s stance towards the Palestinians by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, William Kristol, chairman of the Republican-linked Emergency Committee for Israel, declared in a statement, “The Obama message is loud and clear: the world would be a safer, simpler, and more peaceful place if not for the troublesome Jewish state.”
In the speech that’s drawn the most attention, Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, told a conference on European anti-Semitism that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians had contributed to anti-Semitism in Europe.
“It is a tension and perhaps hatred largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem,” Gutman said of tensions between Muslims and Jews in Europe.
Gutman, who is Jewish, opened the address talking about his father’s years hiding from Nazis in Poland.
Though Gutman’s speech was delivered on November 30, it did not draw attention until December 3, when a story on the talk was printed appeared on the Israeli news site Ynet. Subsequently, Kristol, called for Gutman’s firing, as did Republican hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
The White House distanced itself from Gutman’s remarks in a statement on Saturday, saying: “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and that there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.”
Meanwhile, Kristol’s statement also condemned a Friday address by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in which Panetta called on Israel to resume talks with the Palestinians.
“Just get to the damn table,” Panetta said.
The remarks were condemned by the Anti-Defamation League, whose national director Abraham Foxman complained in a statement that Panetta had used “a prestigious public platform to focus disproportionate responsibility on Israel for the campaign of hostility against her.”
The Gingrich and Romney campaigns have yet to respond to Panetta’s remarks.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.