In an unprecedented televised debate for Egyptian presidential candidates, the two frontrunners aggressively attacked each others' credentials but found common ground in their opposition to Israel, which both called an "enemy."
"Israel is an enemy," said Abdul Monheim Aboul Fotouh, an Islamist formerly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who was jailed by Hosni Mubarak's government.
His leading opponent, liberal nationalist Amr Moussa, sought to tread more lightly on the Israel issue, stating, "It is a country that advocates an aggressive stance but I do not want to choose these emotive expressions. The responsibility of the president is to be removed from this and make the right decision for the country."
Both men strongly agreed, however, Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, considered vital to stability in the region, contained elements they considered unfair to Egypt and would be renegotiated.
The candidates' claims reflect a consistent theme in Egyptian political discourse since Mubarak's ouster last year. Israeli officials have thus dismissed the most recent statements as mere campaign rhetoric.
"In Egypt, you are seeing more pluralism and democracy that (sic) at any time in its recent history but when it comes to Israel there is only one discourse," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. "I think it is quite obvious that the populist thing to do is to bash Israel as strongly as you can. The more you bash Israel, the more points you gain, regardless of whether you are Islamist or secular."
Nevertheless, Israel remains wary of mixed messages emanating from Egypt. Although Moussa has asserted that he can't envision the treaty being canceled "under any circumstances," he declared the 1978 Camp David accords – the treaty's foundation – to be "dead and buried" last month. Both candidates have also pledged to seek a revision to the clause in the treaty only allowing for one Egyptian military division to be stationed in the Sinai.
Though it recently allowed Egypt to increase its military presence in the Sinai in response to a growing number of Islamist militants there, Israel said the treaty itself is not open to negotiation.
"It is widely known that Egypt has sent more troops than officially allowed by the treaty and it has done so with Israel's consent," one official said. "We would agree to such ad hoc arrangements from time to time, but we would regard any attempt to open up specific articles of the treaty totally differently. It would cast a cloud and shadow over the whole treaty."
Israel is reserving judgment on the Egyptian elections until a new president is in office. Relations with Israel are currently not at the forefront of the country's agenda and the topic was only briefly discussed in the four-hour debate Thursday.