As Republican candidates tore at each other at Thursday night’s CNN debate over policy and experience, Israel and Middle East peace took center stage at one point of the night, with the three race leaders each scrambling to prove they were the most committed to the Jewish state.
Front-runner Donald Trump, for his part, said that he was “totally pro-Israel…I’ve been a big contributor to Israel over the years…I’ve received many, many awards from Israel…I have a great relationship with Israel.”
But he also claimed he would seek to keep America a neutral party in future peace negotiations so as to maintain its legitimacy as a mediator in the peace process.
“I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy,” he said. “It doesn’t help if I start saying, ‘I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.'”
Trump’s main challengers, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, seized on the opportunity to display the business mogul as less devoted to the Israeli cause.
Cruz portrayed Trump as in line with the Democrat’s position on the issue. “Both Donald and Hillary Clinton want to be neutral, to use Donald’s word, between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “Let me be clear. If I’m president, America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel.”
Rubio meanwhile called Trump’s statement “an anti-Israel position” and said he did not believe a peace accord was at all possible in the current climate.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, I’m not on either side.’ I will be on a side. I will be on Israel’s side every single day because they are the only pro-American, free enterprise democracy in the entire Middle East,” he said.
The Palestinians, Rubio asserted, could not be regarded on one level with Israel. “They teach their four-year-old children that killing Jews is a glorious thing…They launch rockets and terrorist attacks again Israel on an ongoing basis.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich noted his pro-Israel record dating back to the 1980s and 1990s, when he was a congressman. “I’ve been a strong supporter of Israel longer than anyone on this stage,” he said.
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, recalled his own visit to Israel last year, and said while it “doesn’t mean we can’t be fair to other people,” the United States should treat Israel like its favored child.
Trump scoffed at the other candidates’ positions, saying he was “a negotiator” who had built his career on such matters.
“He thinks a Palestinian is a real estate deal,” Rubio interjected.
“A deal is a deal,” Trump retorted. “You are not a negotiator.”
Trump had expressed similar views last week, when he vowed to give Mideast peace “one hell of a shot” and called it “probably the toughest agreement of any kind to make.”
During a town hall event hosted by MSNBC in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump tried to show neutrality.
“You know, I don’t want to get into it, because… if I win, I don’t want to be in a position where I’m saying to you and the other side now says, ‘We don’t want Trump involved,’” he said.
“Let me be sort of a neutral guy,” he continued. “A lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal. So I don’t want to say whose fault is it. I don’t think it helps.”
On Friday the Sheldon Adelson-controlled Israel Hayom newspaper published an interview with Trump, in which he called himself Israel’s biggest friend, saying his ties to the Jewish state were stronger than those of any other presidential candidate.
Trump cited his daughter’s marriage to Jared Kushner, who is Jewish. And he added that he, himself, had participated in various pro-Israel rallies.
The interview was only published in a Hebrew translation, thus no direct quotes in English were available.
Trump told the paper, which is strongly supportive of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he wanted to work to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. Though he didn’t know if this was possible, he said he would make efforts to resolve the conflict if elected.
He also blasted the Iran nuclear deal, as he has in the past, calling it the worst possible accord for Israel.
Asked for his position on moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — as was promised in the past by many presidential candidates — Trump said he liked the idea.
White House hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio unleashed a barrage of attacks against Trump during Thursday’s raucous Republican debate as they sought to halt the billionaire front-runner’s seemingly relentless march to the party’s nomination.
The three candidates exchanged some of the most-heated and acerbic remarks of the entire 2016 primary cycle. They often talked over one another as they battled for supremacy in the final on-stage showdown before the “Super Tuesday” series of statewide votes on March 1.