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Egypt's Morsi tries to defuse flap over Jews slur

Thursday - 1/17/2013, 4:34am  ET

From left, Senators, Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island, Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, John McCain, Republican from Arizona and Kristen Gillibrand, Democrat from New York, attend a press conference for a delegation from the United States Senate, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Egypt’s Islamist president tells visiting U.S. senators that his past remarks calling Zionists “pigs” and “bloodsuckers” were a denunciation of Israeli policies not an attack on Jews, hoping to defuse Washington’s anger over the comments. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's Islamist president sought Wednesday to defuse Washington's anger over his past remarks urging hatred of Jews and calling Zionists "pigs" and "bloodsuckers," telling visiting U.S. senators that his comments were a denunciation of Israeli policies.

Both sides appear to want to get beyond the flap: Mohammed Morsi needs America's help in repairing a rapidly sliding economy, and Washington can't afford to shun a figure who has emerged as a model of an Islamist leader who maintains his country's ties with Israel.

U.S. Sen. John McCain said a congressional delegation he led that met with Morsi expressed to him their "strong disapproval" about his 2010 comments. The delegation and Morsi had a "constructive discussion" about the remarks, he told reporters.

Still, despite calls by some in Washington to rein in aid to Egypt's Islamist-led government, McCain said the delegation will press in Congress for approval of some $480 million in new assistance to Cairo.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, also in the delegation, warned that "the Egyptian economy is going to collapse if something is not done quickly." He urged Morsi to finalize a repeatedly delayed deal with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan.

The flap was a new twist in Morsi's attempts to reconcile his background as a veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood -- a vehemently anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. group -- and the requirements of his role as head of state, which include keeping the strategic relationship with Washington.

Morsi's remarks came from a mix of speeches he made in 2010 when he was a leading Brotherhood figure. The remarks were revived when an Egyptian TV show aired them to highlight and mock Morsi's current policies. On Tuesday, the White House denounced the comments as "deeply offensive."

In the video, Morsi refers to "Zionists" as "bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians" as well as "the descendants of apes and pigs." He says Egyptians should nurse their children on "hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews. They must be breast-fed hatred." He also calls President Barack Obama a liar.

Morsi, who came to office in June, told the visiting U.S. delegation on Wednesday that the remarks were taken out of context, aimed at criticizing Israeli policies, and not Jews, according to presidential spokesman Yasser Ali.

Morsi told them 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 also told them the remarks were part of a speech against Israeli aggression in Gaza and "assured them of his respect for monotheistic religions, freedom of belief and the practice of religions," Ali said.

Despite the explanation, Morsi went beyond attacking "Zionists" to directly refer to Jews and used traditional anti-Semitic slurs like "pigs."

But the explanation was a rare instance when an Islamist was forced to address criticism of what is routine rhetoric for the Brotherhood. They and other Islamists often engage in tirades against Israel, sometimes trying to stick to references to "Zionism," the founding ideology of Israel, but often slipping into attacks on Jews.

The Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, recently accused Jews of corrupting the world and slaughtering the Palestinians. A top leader of the group last month called on Israelis of Egyptian origin to return, saying the Jewish state will cease to exist in 10 years.

The Brotherhood has long prided itself on its non-compromising stand on Israel and that its members were the first to fight Jewish groups in Palestine in the 1940s. Morsi himself rarely mentions Israel by name and refuses to meet any Israeli official.

Islamists tend to place the Arab-Israeli conflict in a religious framework, dating back to the rise of Islam some 1,500 years ago and conflicts with Jews at the time. Egypt's liberals share the resentment toward Israel felt by most Egyptians, but are more careful to restrict their criticism to Israel's policies and not the Jews.

Still Morsi has promised to abide by Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel and has continued security cooperation with Israel over the volatile Sinai Peninsula and their border. In November, Morsi brokered a truce between the Jewish state and Gaza's Hamas rulers in November, a feat that won him warm praise from the Americans.

There have been bumps: Morsi's administration was embarrassed by the leak of a letter sent in his name to Israeli President Shimon Peres in reply to one he received from him. Morsi withdrew Egypt's ambassador in Israel in protest against Israel's air campaign against Gaza's Hamas militants late last year.

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