Israel has become a punching bag for politicians vying for votes in Egypt’s presidential election, playing on popular antipathy in Egypt towards its neighbor, but the realities of office are likely to ensure a 33-year-old peace treaty is not jeopardized.
Officials in Israel have watched Egypt’s political turmoil with increasing wariness after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, who oversaw a cold yet stable peace.
An ex-air force commander in the race to be the new president boasts of bringing down Israeli aircraft in 1973, the last of Egypt’s four wars with Israel.
One Islamist often refers to Israel as the “Zionist entity” and the “enemy” and a leftist candidate pledges to support the Palestinian resistance against Israel.
None of the candidates want to tear up the treaty signed in 1979 but they repeatedly warn in rallies and debates it should be reviewed. Many of them grumble at provisions in the U.S.-brokered deal they say are biased in Israel’s favor.
Yet, beyond the bluster of the campaign trail, the next president’s in-tray will be full of more pressing issues such as reviving an economy on the ropes.
He will also preside over a nation where the entrenched establishment of the army and security services - who kept the peace secure - remains intact.
“Of course Israel is an enemy. It occupied land, it threatened our security. It is an entity that has 200 nuclear warheads,” Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh said in a TV debate when asked about Israel, referring to a nuclear arsenal Israel is believed to possess but neither confirms nor denies having.
Seeking to trip up his opponent in the novel TV face-off in a nation that has never had an open leadership contest, Abol Fotouh pressed former Arab League chief Amr Moussa on whether he too classed Israel an enemy. Moussa chose the term “adversary.”
Moussa, who like Abol Fotouh is a front-runner in the race, was Mubarak’s foreign minister in the 1990s before moving to the League. In both posts he was a vocal critic of Israel.
An Israeli newspaper commentator wrote last month that Moussa had intense disdain for Israel.
“I intend to review the shape of relations,” Moussa pledged, describing “big disagreements”, but he said the next president would need to lead Egypt “with wisdom and not push it along with slogans towards a confrontation we may not be ready for.”
Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Itzhak Levanon said Israel’s main duty was “to tell the Egyptians loudly that the peace treaty is also in their interests and that they will have to do everything to keep it.”
He said comments made on the election trail did not always translate into action in office. “It is like that in all countries,” he said.
Like Moussa, other candidates have also reflected a more cautious line when fielding inevitable questions about Israel.
Abol Fotouh, who often refers to Israel as the “Zionist entity”, said Egypt should review its treaties to ensure they were in the national interest but was not looking to start any war.
Ahmed Shafik, who like Mubarak was a former air force commander before joining the ex-president’s cabinet, told a rally when he was questioned about Israel: “A strong state is not just one with artillery and tanks but has a strong economy, strong science, strong culture.”
But tough talk still features on the campaign trail.
Leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy pledged in a television interview: “I will support whoever resists Israel, not because of nationalism, Arabism or morality, although this is what it is, but because these are the laws of the United Nations.”
Safwat el-Hegazi, an independent preacher who backs the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Mursi, has used his campaign rallies to call for the establishment of a single Arab state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Mursi criticisms Israel but says he would respect the treaty, which brings $1.3 billion a year of U.S. military aid. An aide to Mursi said his candidate would not meet Israeli officials as president, though his foreign minister would.
Western diplomats say popular pressure on a newly-elected president could encourage more outspoken criticism of Israel. However, they say the top army and security officials who have for years kept close ties with their Israeli counterparts to coordinate across the border were likely to keep ties steady.
“There are red lines and I think everyone is aware of them. Egypt needs its close relationship with the United States, it needs the financial assistance, the investment and the loans to survive,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
The peace deal has been a cornerstone of Egypt’s foreign policy and, while it may not have the prominence Mubarak gave it, the generals who have overseen Egypt’s transition are unlikely to let that change.
The army is expected to remain influential long after the formal handover to a new president by July 1.
Nevertheless, Hamid said Egypt’s politicians could “test how far they can go ... before arousing the wrath of the international community.”
Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Janet Lawrence