Candidates for Egypt’s highest office have sharpened their anti-Israel rhetoric with barely a week left until voters cast their ballots in the first presidential election since last year’s revolution.
Israel emerged as a flash point Thursday night in a debate between the two front-running candidates, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
Mr. Aboul Fotouh called the Jewish state an “enemy” and challenged Mr. Moussa to do the same. Mr. Moussa demurred, saying a president should not use “emotive expressions.”
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Struggle for Egypt,” said the exchange offers a window into the candidates’ strategies.
“Aboul Fotouh’s goal was to show that Moussa was ‘falul,’ ” said Mr. Cook, using an Egyptian expression for remnants of the old regime.
“And the old regime was different from where most Egyptians are on the peace treaty [with Israel], whereas Moussa was intent on showing that Aboul Fotouh was irresponsible - that, yes, Egyptians, in fact, have a case to be made, but to call Israel an ‘enemy’ was not necessarily in the interest of Egyptians.”
To longtime Egypt observers, the idea of Mr. Moussa being put on the defensive over Israel was ironic. Mr. Moussa, who served as longtime President Hosni Mubarak’s foreign minister and then as secretary-general of the Arab League, earned Egyptian affection with his famed tirades against Israel.
The campaign also has forced Mr. Moussa to dispel rumors that he has an Israeli half-brother.
Egyptians will cast their initial presidential votes May 23 to 24. If no candidate gets the majority, as seems likely, the top two vote-getters will compete in a second round June 16 to 17.
In addition to Mr. Moussa and Mr. Aboul Fotouh, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik also are contenders.
On Saturday, Mr. Shafik’s campaign boasted that he, a former air force commander, had shot down two Israeli planes during his military career.
Mr. Morsi also has railed against Israel, though he has pledged to respect the 1979 Camp David Accords that normalized relations between the countries.
Mr. Moussa leads most polls, though few analysts will make predictions because of the unreliability of Egyptian polling.
Whoever wins will preside over a new chapter in relations with Israel, which have suffered since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, whom Israelis saw as an anchor of stability.
All major candidates have pledged to end natural gas sales to Israel. They also have called for revisions to the peace treaty.
In his debate with Mr. Moussa, Mr. Aboul Fotouh called the treaty a “national security threat” to Egypt, citing its limitations on Egyptian military forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
Obama administration officials have downplayed the anti-Israel campaign language.
“People say things in a campaign and then when they get elected, they actually have to govern,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday.
But in Israel, the rhetoric has fueled suspicion about the “Arab Spring” - a term many Israelis abhor.
“It’s Arab, but it’s not spring,” said former army chief Gabi Ashkenazi at a recent conference, suggesting the substitute term “Islamic storm.”