Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president, promised to respect his country’s historic peace treaty with Israel as he sought to burnish his credentials as a moderate.
The Egyptian leader used his first interview with the Western press since coming to power in June as a platform to rebut criticism that he intends to lead a reactionary regime inimical to both the United States and Israel.
With Israel among those most suspicious of his intentions, not least because of his longtime involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsi seemed particularly eager to reassure Egypt’s western neighbour — even if he did not mention the Jewish state by name.
The president promised that a military campaign he started to root out Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula dividing the two countries would be conducted in compliance with the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979.
“Egypt is practising its very normal role on its soil and does not threaten anyone and there should not be any kind of international or regional concerns at all from the presence of Egyptian security forces,” Mr Morsi told the Reuters news agency.
He said the campaign was “in full respect of international peace treaties”.
Israeli officials have expressed concern that the deployment of additional Egyptian troops in the Sinai undermined a key clause of the treaty — seen as a bedrock of security in the Middle East — that limits Egypt’s military presence in the region.
Israel’s protests have been muted, however, amid fears that the country’s southern border was becoming unstable because of the growing militant presence. Earlier this month gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a border post in the Sinai region before making a thwarted incursion into Israeli territory.
Even so, Israeli officials fear a precedent may have been set, one that the Muslim Brotherhood could exploit in its stated bid to modify aspects of the treaty they see as unfair to Egypt.
Israel cautiously welcomed Mr Morsi’s comments, but challenged him to prove his genuineness by visiting Jerusalem, something even his predecessor Hosni Mubarak only did once when he attended Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in 1995.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish foreign minister said: “These are important tidings. But whoever talks about peace and stability must understand that it cannot just be vague and hypothetical. Therefore, we hope to see President Morsi receiving official Israeli representatives, we want to see him giving interviews to Israeli media and we want to see him in Jerusalem.”
Israel was one of the few states openly to support Mr Mubarak in his final days in power last year, fearing that Egypt would follow in the footsteps of Iran, where the 1979 revolution toppled the pro-Israeli Shah and replaced him with an aggressive Islamist regime.
Concerns that Egypt could seek closer ties with Iran have grown in some quarters after Mr Morsi announced he would visit Tehran this week, the first Egyptian leader to do so since the fall of the Shah.
But Mr Morsi insisted that he was merely striving to achieve a balanced foreign policy, saying that he would ensure that Egypt would be an enemy of no-one.
Mr Morsi has said that he will unveil plans to address the crisis in Syria by proposing a new Middle East contact group that will include both Iran, the Assad regime’s closest ally, and Saudi Arabia, one of its chief detractors.
But Mr Morsi said any peace deal in Syria would only work if Bashar al-Assad surrendered the presidency.
“There is no room to talk about reform, but the discussion is about change,” he said.