Republican debate in Miami, Florida.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Senator Ted Cruz sparked a heated conversation on the Israel-Palestinian conflict during the CNN Republican debate on Thursday night when he mentioned Vanderbilt graduate student Taylor Force, 29, who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist who went on a stabbing rampage in Jaffa.
The CNN-hosted debate between the four remaining Republican candidates took place at a crucial time, days before primary votes in Florida and Ohio .
Senator Ted Cruz reiterated his support calling Israel "America's strongest ally in the Middle East," while reprimanding the Palestinian unity government with "Hamas terrorists."
Business mogul Donald Trump defended his prior statements in which he claimed it was in America's best interest to stay neutral in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"First of all, there is no body on this stage who is more pro-Israel than I am," said Trump receiving jeers in response from the audience. "I happen to have a son-in-law and daughter who are Jewish."
Trump also recalled that he once served as the grand marshal of the Israeli Day Parade, explaining that Israel's security would be his top priority but that he did intend to make an attempt at negotiating a deal between the two sides of the conflict.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio fired back at Trump calling his stance "an anti-Israeli policy," and asserted his own belief that any territory transferred to the Palestinians would turn into an attack on Israel.
"Every time that Israel has turned over territory...it is used as a launching pad to attack Israel," he said.
A peace deal is impossible at this time because Israel has no realistic partner to work with explained Rubio.
The Palestinian Authority "is not interested in a serious deal," he added.
Ohio Governor John Kasich agreed with the statement that the Palestinian leadership is inciting terrorist against Israel and expressed his view that there is no real, achievable peace solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"I don't think there's any long-term permanent peace solution and I think pursuing that is the wrong thing to do," said Kasich.
"The best we can hope to achieve is stability in the Middle East," he said.
The best way we can do that is by supporting Israel and providing them with the arms they need to protect the country, explained Kasich.
Both the Florida and Ohio Republican primaries award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, meaning that the winner of the popular vote is awarded the state's entire slate of delegates.
So far, 25 states and Puerto Rico have held nominating contests, and Trump has amassed a solid lead in the delegate race. According to the Associated Press, Trump has 458 delegates, followed by Cruz at 359, Rubio at 151, and Kasich at 54.
Clinching the Republican nomination requires 1,237 delegates.
Trump on Thursday appeared to try to appear more presidential, something he has pledged often in the past to do so but never has. On Thursday he modulated both the tone of his voice and the tenor of his remarks, which in prior debates have drawn sharp criticism for being vulgar.
The two-hour debate included a sober discussion of pressing challenges from illegal immigration to reform of Social Security to free trade deals, a marked departure from the finger-pointing schoolyard taunts that the candidates have engaged in past debates.Reuters contributed to this report.