BRUSSELS — The EU's trade chief apologized Friday for blaming Jews and the "Jewish lobby" in Washington for blocking Mideast peace as the embarrassed EU head office quickly distanced itself from his comments.

Karel De Gucht, 56, said he did not mean to stigmatize Jewish people and stressed in a statement that "anti-Semitism has no place in today's world." The remarks in a Thursday radio interview came as the U.S. formally convened the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in nearly two years.

The European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group, had demanded a retraction of De Gucht's remarks in which he maintained that Israel frustrates U.S.-led peace efforts and warned not to "underestimate the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill."

"That is the best organized lobby that exists there," the former Belgian foreign minister said in the interview with the Dutch-speaking VRT radio network.

"Don't underestimate the opinion ... of the average Jew outside of Israel," he said. "There is, indeed, a belief, I can hardly describe it differently, among most Jews that they are right. So it is not easy to have a rational discussion with a moderate Jew about what is happening in the Middle East. It is a very emotional issue."

Jewish groups warned that De Gucht's comments were part of a growing wave of anti-Semitism in Europe. Germany's central bank said Thursday it will ask a board member to step down for stereotyping Muslims and Jews. The official, Thilo Sarrazin said in a book published this week that Muslim immigrants in Europe cannot or will not integrate. He also has cited studies he says prove that "all Jews share a certain gene" — ideas he stressed in recent interviews.

European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told reporters De Gucht made "personal comments (that) do not reflect the EU attitude about the Middle East peace process."

Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged Thursday in Washington in the first round of talks in two years to keep meeting at regular intervals, aiming to nail down a framework for overcoming deep disputes and achieving lasting peace within a year. The eventual aim is the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state beside a secure Israel.

At issue are the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees and security. Another major issue is the Palestinians' demand that Israel freeze all settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to be part of their future state.

De Gucht spoke in a 14-minute interview about the Middle East peace process, citing the isolation of the Gaza Strip and divisions among Palestinians as complicating matters. He also said the talks are overshadowed by the fact that "Jewish politics have hardened."

In his Friday apology, De Gucht said he did not mean "to cause offense or stigmatize 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."

Moshe Kantor, of the European Jewish Congress called De Gucht's remarks part of a "new wave of new anti-Semitism growing in Europe."

"It has somehow become acceptable to attack Jews through Israel, even at the highest levels," said Kantor. "The old anti-Semitic libels of the all-powerful Jewish cabals, the recalcitrant Jew and the irrational Jews only caring for their own, are remade to fit 21st- century hostility to the Jewish State."

The European Commission runs the EU's day-to-day affairs. It has 27 commissioners — one from each EU nation handling a particular area.

Many EU commissioners come to Brussels after careers in national politics, and with some regularity they make political statements that embarrass the EU head office.

This rarely leads to dismissal. In one exception, the entire EU executive resigned in 1999 when the then French commissioner, Edith Cresson, refused to quit after she was found guilty of financial mismanagement and cronyism.