CAIRO — Comments on Jews made by Egypt's Islamist president nearly three years ago and labeled by the White House as "deeply offensive" were taken out of context, aimed at criticizing Israeli policies, not Jews, a presidential spokesman said on Wednesday.
A day earlier, the Obama administration admonished Morsi over the comments, which were revived when they were aired on an Egyptian TV show this month, and called on him to repudiate them.
At the time, in September 2010, Morsi was a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. In the video, he refers to "Zionists" as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs."
On Wednesday, Morsi told a visiting U.S. Senate delegation led by Republican John McCain that a distinction must be made between criticism of what he called the "racist" policies of the Israelis against the Palestinians and insults against the Jewish faith, Morsi's spokesman Yasser Ali said.
"President Morsi assured the delegation that the broadcast comments were taken out of an address against the Israeli aggression against Gaza," Ali told reporters. "He also assured them of his respect for monolithic religions, freedom of belief and practicing religions."
The Obama administration's rebuke marked a new twist in the complex relationship between the U.S. and Egypt's Islamist leader, who became the country's first freely elected president in June. The two sides have been in a bond of mutual need: Egypt needs Washington's help in salvaging its sliding economy, Washington sees Morsi as a figure who — despite his rhetoric — maintains Egypt's relationship with Israel.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Morsi "should make clear that he respects people of all faiths and that this type of rhetoric is unacceptable in a democratic Egypt."
"We believe that President Morsi should make clear that he respects people," White House told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
"We completely reject these statements as we do any language that espouses religious hatred," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. "This kind of rhetoric has been used in this region for far too long. It's counter to the goals of peace."
Morsi has promised to abide by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Morsi was also instrumental in facilitating a cease-fire in November between Israel and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, despite his refusal to speak directly with Israeli officials.
Egypt receives more than $1 billion a year in military and development aid from the U.S. as part of a package linked to its historic 1979 peace deal with Israel. The peace accord is a cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy.
Nuland said Morsi's actions as president in support of the peace treaty with Israel are laudable but only one part of picture.
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"We will judge him by what he does," she said. "What he has been doing is supporting that peace treaty, continuing to work with us, and with Israel on common goals, including in Gaza. But we'll also judge him but what he says. And we think that these comments should be repudiated and they should be repudiated firmly."
An official in Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about an issue of such sensitivity, said Tuesday that Morsi's comments were a "big concern" but that Israel did not want to fuel tensions with Egypt.