Trade Commissioner battles 'anti-Semitism' charge
(BRUSSELS) - The European Union's trade chief battled on Friday to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism after referring to the power of a "Jewish lobby" in US policy.
European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht also suggested that it was difficult to have a "rational" conversation with most Jews about the Middle East conflict.
The European Jewish Congress demanded an apology and full retraction from De Gucht, whose comments came on the heels of a German central banker's controversial statement that "all Jews share a certain gene."
"Once again we hear outrageous anti-Semitism from a senior European official," EJC President Moshe Kantor said in a statement.
"The libel of Jewish power is apparently acceptable at the highest levels of the European Union. This should worry everyone who seeks a more tolerant Europe."
The European Commission distanced itself from the remarks, saying they were "personal views" that in no way reflected the position of the EU regarding the Middle East peace process.
De Gucht expressed regret about the way his remarks were interpreted, saying he did not mean to offend Jews.
"I regret that the comments that I made have been interpreted in a sense that I did not intend," he said in a statement.
"I did not mean in any possible way to cause offence or stigmatise the Jewish community. I want to make clear that anti-Semitism has no place in today's world and is fundamentally against our European values."
The former Belgian foreign minister made the remarks in a Flemish radio interview on Thursday in which he was asked about the resumption of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington this week.
"You cannot underestimate the weight of the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill, the US Congress. It is the most well-organised pressure group over there," he said. "You cannot underestimate the weight of the Jewish lobby on US policy."
He continued: "You also cannot underestimate the opinion, outside the lobby, of the average Jew who does not live in Israel.
"There is a conviction, and I can hardly describe it in another way, among most Jews that they are right. And conviction is something which is hard to combat with rational arguments," he told VRT radio.
"It is not easy to have, even with a moderate Jew, a rational discussion on the Middle East situation. It is a very emotional issue."
His remarks follow deep controversy in Germany over the comments on Jewish "genes" made by Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the German central bank. The Bundesbank called on Germany's president on Thursday to fire Sarrazin.
The European Jewish Congress said the remarks by the two officials "are part of a new wave of new anti-Semitism growing in Europe which holds distorted views on Israel as the Jewish State."
De Gucht is no stranger to controversy.
He has been declared persona non grata in the Democratic Republic of Congo after he questioned in December the capacity of Congolese authorities to effectively use EU aid money.
DR Congo had also suspended relations with Belgium for several months in 2008 after the then foreign minister made remarks about corruption in the former Belgian colony.
His remarks on Jews came as the EU, which forms the Middle East diplomatic Quartet with the United States, Russia and the United Nations, is trying to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton backed De Gucht's explanation, saying she was "confident that he did not intend any offence," her office said in a statement.
Seeking to return the spotlight on peacekmaking, Ashton reaffirmed "the EU's engagement and full support to the success of the negotiations and stresses the role of the Quartet in driving this process to a successful conclusion."