Shimon Peres has said that an interview in which he was seen to accuse British people of antisemitism was misunderstood.
The Israeli president has defended his comments and said that he believed that “relations between Britain and Israel are of the greatest importance.”
The normally doveish Nobel Peace Prize recipient, 87, was quoted in an interview as saying: “in England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab, of course, not among all Englishmen, and anti-Israeli, in the establishment".
He also said that while Israel’s relationships with Italy, Germany and France were "pretty good", the English attitude towards the Jews was Israel's "next big problem".
And, discussing foreign policy decisions, he said: “There are several million Muslim voters, and for many members of parliament, that's the difference between getting elected and not getting elected."
Mr Peres, who served as Israeli prime minister twice, made the remarks to Israeli historian Benny Morris in an interview for an American Jewish website, Tablet magazine,
But the remarks drew criticism from MPs, Jewish leaders and Christian and Muslim commentators and some British newspapers reported that Mr Peres had accused English people of being deeply antisemitic.
Romford MP Andrew Rosindell told the Daily Mail that the comments were “wholly inaccurate” and said Mr Peres should remember that British people “were at the forefront of defeating the Nazis in the Second World War.”
The president, who was awarded an honorary knighthood in 2008, denied that he had meant the British were antisemitic and issued a clarification about his comments.
A statement from his spokesman said: “On the contrary, he has the highest regard for Britain’s resolute opposition to Nazi Germany. Without the war on Nazism, waged entirely alone at times, the Jewish people would have faced an even greater tragedy.”
Pointing out that more than 10,000 missiles have been fired at Israeli civilians from Gaza, the spokesman added: “The president did express concern that some people in Britain do not fully appreciate difficulties of facing an onslaught of terror whilst adhering to democratic practice as Israel does.”
But he said that while Mr Peres had “expressed his sorrow over certain points in the relationship between Israel and the UK”, including Britain’s abstention in the 1947 UN Partition Plan vote, or the arms embargo imposed after Israel gained independence, these were “historical disagreements.
“They have no impact on current relations between the two countries and of course have nothing to do with antisemitism.”
MP James Clappison, the vice-chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, said he did not “recognise” the president’s description of England: He said "Mr Peres has got this wrong. There are pro- and anti-Israel views in all European countries.
Things are certainly no worse, as far as Israel is concerned, in this country than other European countries."
Writing in the Times newspaper, JC editor Stephen Pollard noted that saying that there was antisemitism in Britain was “a very different thing” to saying all British people were antisemitic. He said the former was "demonstrably true.”
“But to extrapolate from that the idea that we are, as a nation, antisemitic, is as ridiculous as suggesting that because some people attack Muslims, as a nation we are Islamophobic."
Mr Pollard added: “Too often, those of us who criticise campaigners against Israel, or who argue that there is an anti-Israel bias in much of the media, are accused of calling our opponents antisemites.
“That is specious nonsense – with the poisonous aim of trying to delegitimise friends of Israel from the debate.”
The controversy comes just days after Prime Minister David Cameron sparked Israeli anger by describing Gaza as “a prison camp” while on a visit to Turkey.
However Mr Peres gave the original interview before the incident. His spokesman added: “Shimon Peres is optimistic that the two governments will continue to pursue their shared interests following the election of David Cameron, and that the two countries will strengthen their strategic ties.”