By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee drew rare criticism from Israel on Tuesday for comments in which he accused President Barack Obama of marching Israelis "to the door of the oven" in a nuclear deal with Iran.
Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said on Facebook the former Arkansas governor was "genuinely concerned" about Israel's future but was wrong to refer to Nazi gas chambers that killed millions of Jews in voicing alarm over the July 14 accord between world powers and Iran.
Israel has called the agreement a threat to its survival and has urged U.S. lawmakers to reject the deal, saying it would give Iran a "sure path" to nuclear weapons.
"Dear Mr Huckabee, no one is marching Jews to the ovens anymore," Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, wrote.
"That is why we established the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, and if necessary, we will know how to defend ourselves by ourselves," Katz said.
Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview with USA Today's Capital Download program that while Israel had a "very serious disagreement" with the Obama administration over the Iranian issue, Huckabee's remarks were inappropriate. The Anti-Defamation League called the remarks "completely out of line and unacceptable."
Huckabee, one of 16 candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination, made the comments in an interview with a conservative website on Saturday. He has been a regular visitor to Israel, where he has been embraced by right-wing politicians as one their country's staunchest supporters.
Huckabee on Tuesday dismissed his critics as coming from the left.
"The response from Jewish people has been overwhelmingly positive. The response from Holocaust survivors, from the children of Holocaust survivors ... People were overwhelmingly supportive," Huckabee said on NBC's "Today" show.
In Ethiopia on Monday, Obama said Huckabee's remarks were emblematic of a slide in public discourse coming from the Republicans.
"The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are, I think, part of just a general pattern that we've seen that ... would be considered ridiculous if it weren't so sad," he said.
Huckabee responded with a critique of the Iran nuclear deal.
"What's 'ridiculous and sad' is that President Obama does not take Iran's repeated threats seriously," he said in a statement. "For decades, Iranian leaders have pledged to 'destroy,' 'annihilate,' and 'wipe Israel off the map' with a 'big Holocaust."
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Addis Ababa and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Louise Ireland and Alden Bentley)