GOP debate focuses mostly on Islamic State challenge

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Republican candidates, focusing on the Islamic State challenge, barely mentioned Israeli concerns in their national security debate.

The Tuesday night debate on CNN dealt mainly with the challenge posed by the Islamic State, particularly in the wake of the deadly attack this month in San Bernardino, Calif.

Candidates differed sharply on the degree to which the challenge required American intervention in Iraq and Syria, which intelligence methods are appropriate in addressing it and whether to embrace or isolate Muslims.

Most candidates rejected front-runner Donald Trump’s recommendation to temporarily block all Muslims from entering the country, with some casting their opposition in pragmatic terms and others saying the proposal is immoral.

“The Kurds are the greatest fighting force and our strongest allies,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said. “They’re Muslim. Look, this is not a serious proposal. In fact, it will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us at a time when we need to reengage with them to be able to create a strategy to destroy ISIS.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Trump’s proposal was an offense to Muslims who serve in the U.S. military.

“There are at least 3,500 American Muslims serving in the armed forces,” Graham said. “Thank you for your service. You are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy.”

Trump said his proposal was a matter of security, not discrimination.

“We’re not talking about religion,” he said. “We’re talking about security. Our country is out of control.”

One of the rare occasions Israel came up was during an intense exchange between Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who are catching up to Trump in the polls.

Rubio favors increased U.S. interventionism overseas, while Cruz has said that American interventions have been disastrous, particularly in the removal of dictators who have kept a lid on unrest. In one testy exchange, Rubio noted that Cruz had voted against the Defense Authorization Act, which includes funding for Iron Dome, the short-range anti-missile program Israel has used to deflect rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

“Three times he voted against the Defense Authorization Act, which is a bill that funds the troops,” Rubio said of Cruz. “It also, by the way, funds the Iron Dome and other important programs.”

Cruz said his votes against were a matter of concern about civil liberties.

“When I campaigned in Texas, I told voters in Texas that I would oppose the federal government having the authority to detain U.S. citizens permanently with no due process,” he said. “I have repeatedly supported an effort to take that out of that bill, and I honored that campaign commitment.”

CNN held two debates on Tuesday night. The nine candidates scoring more than 3.5 percent in the polls debated in prime time. The remaining four debated earlier.

The prime time event included Trump, Rubio, Cruz, Bush, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. The earlier debate featured Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The debate took place at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas, owned by Sheldon Adelson, a major Jewish funder of the party. Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas reporter, said on Twitter that Adelson met with Trump, Bush, Rubio and Cruz before the debate.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, are said to be trying to decide between Rubio and Cruz as the GOP candidate to back.

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