Liberal leadership candidates angrily denied and denounced an accusation by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that most of the contenders for the party's top job were "anti-Israeli."

Harper made the remark in response to Michael Ignatieff's recent comments that the Israeli air strike in Qana during the Israeli/Hezbollah conflict was a war crime.

"Well, that's a serious charge," Stephen Harper said when asked by a reporter about Ignatieff's stance. "As you know, I don't support that view.

"Frankly, I think, though, this is consistent with the anti-Israeli position that has been taken by virtually all of the candidates for the Liberal leadership. And I don't think it's helpful or useful."

Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae slammed Harper for the "shameful" comment and demanded an apology.

"I think what he said was disgraceful," Rae said.

"I think to suggest that there is a pro-Israel party in Canada and there's an anti-Israel party in Canada is something of which he should be thoroughly ashamed."

Ignatieff said in statement that it was "disgraceful" for Harper to play "crass politics with the issue of the Middle East."

"Frankly, it is beneath him and his office to do so."

Asked by CBC News about Harper's accusation, Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy said he shouldn't have to dignify the prime minister's remarks with a response.

But he added that he's on the record for supporting Israel and being a friend of the state.

"Mr. Harper really diminished his post of prime minister by being so unstatesmanlike," Kennedy said.

Leadership candidate Stéphane Dion said he was "insulted" by Harper's criticism.

"I think it's not prime ministerial," Dion told CBC News. "The prime minister is dividing communities, dividing the nation for clearly partisan purposes."

An attempt to clarify

The controversy was sparked by Ignatieff, who was trying to clarify previous controversial remarks about Qana on a Radio-Canada program, Tout le monde en parle.

In August, after the air strike that killed more than two dozen people, Ignatieff told the Toronto Star that civilian deaths were inevitable in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

"This is the kind of dirty war you're in when you have to do this and I'm not losing sleep about that," he said.

Ignatieff soon expressed regret over those remarks and on Sunday sought to explain what he should have said.

"I was a professor of human rights and I am also a professor of the laws of war and what happened in Qana was a war crime and I should have said that," he said.

Ignatieff's recent comments have drawn criticism from a number of Jewish organizations. His Toronto campaign co-chair also withdrew her support.

Israel has apologized for the air strike, saying army officials did not know civilians were in the area.

Israeli officials said the neighbourhood was targeted based on intelligence that Hezbollah fighters had used it to launch rockets at northern Israel.

During the conflict, Harper came under criticism by some for firmly supporting Israel in its battle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Two weeks ago at La Francophonie summit, Harper opposed a proposed resolution recognizing the suffering of only the people of Lebanon in the conflict.