|Republicans Rick Perry (L), Mitt Romney (2nd L) and Newt Gingrich (R) all seized on Gutman's remarks [GALLO/GETTY]
US President Barack Obama's administration has rejected Republican calls to fire the ambassador to Belgium after he suggested that Israeli actions against Palestinians, including settlement building and military strikes, were partly to blame for anti-Semitism in Europe.
Ambassador Howard Gutman, who is Jewish and the son of a Holocaust survivor, said in a speech that a new type of anti-Semitism had emerged in Europe that was not "classic bigotry" but instead linked to "continuing tensions" between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbours.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination, both called on Obama to dismiss Gutman and renewed charges that his administration was not supportive enough of Israel. But both the White House and State Department said on Monday that Gutman would remain.
The clash over US policy toward Israel comes as Obama and Republicans jockey for support from Jewish voters, who could be critical in the 2012 presidential election, with Republicans are aiming to cast Obama as unfairly harsh toward Israel.
"The ambassador's comments demonstrate the Obama administration's failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimise Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally," Romney said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, also a presidential candidate, criticised Gutman's remarks as well.
In its statement, the White House said Obama has a strong record of support for Israel and condemned "anti-Semitism in all its forms."
"We have full confidence in [Gutman]," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Monday. 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 had 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 delegitimise Israel, and we will continue to do so," Carney said.
Obama asserted at a fundraiser last week that "this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration".
The White House cited military aid to Israel and support at the United Nations and pointed to statements from Israeli officials backing up Obama's assertion.
Israel 'thrown under the bus'
But Republicans still challenged that claim, with Romney saying that Obama had "repeatedly thrown Israel under the bus".
Although Jewish voters comprise only two per cent of the electorate nationwide, they are considered an important part of Obama's supprot base and could make the difference in battleground states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada in a close election.
Moreover, the Jewish community is an important source of donations, and Obama campaign supporters want to maintain that support as much as Republicans want to chip away at it.
Addressing a conference on anti-Semitism last week, Gutman said a new, more complex form of anti-Semitism was growing, in which Jews were targeted because of the failure to resolve Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
"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 co-operative 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 he condemns all forms of anti-Semitism, adding: "I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way".