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Why Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz think Israel is a winning issue against Donald Trump

Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz applaud. (Reuters/Mike Stone)

During Thursday night's Republican debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Donald Trump to explain why, in a recent interview, Trump had said he'd be "neutral" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ted Cruz had raised the subject earlier, and teed off once he got a chance to address the topic.

"Let me be clear," Cruz said. "If I'm president, America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel. ... I have over and over again led the fight to defend Israel, to fight for Israel. And this — if you want to know who will stand with Israel, we ought to start with who has stood with Israel when the heat was on."

Marco Rubio was similarly adamant. "The next president of the United States needs to be someone like me who will stand firmly on the side of Israel," he said. "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."

Rubio's argument is the most obvious reason that the United States has a vested interest in the affairs of Israel. In a tumultuous region, the U.S.'s symbiotic relationship with the country is strategically and tactically important.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the United States to address Congress last year, though, we saw that attitudes toward Israel were different, depending on political allegiances. Republicans have long sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, according to data from Gallup, but shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the split between the parties grew much wider. For a party that emphasizes national security, maintaining the security and strength of Israel -- which was the explicit argument Netanyahu made against the Iran deal — is an obvious priority.

But there's another aspect to it. In 2014, Pew Research posed the Israelis-or-Palestinian questions to Americans, and two trends are obvious. The more conservative the respondent, the more that person backed Israel. And the more evangelical he or she was, same thing.

Richard Land, executive editor of the evangelical Christian Post, explained why he saw support of Israel as fundamental to evangelical Christianity in a column last year.

"A significant majority of American Evangelicals believe that God is a keeper of His promises and that the "Promised Land" belongs to the Jews in belief and unbelief, in obedience and in disobedience, forever," Land wrote. "[W]e are also admonished to support the Jews if we want to be blessed individually and collectively as a nation. ... God has promised to bless those who bless the Jews. I believe, as an Evangelical Christian, that the Jewish return to their current homeland in the twentieth century was, and is, a fulfillment of biblical prophecy."

The 9/11 attacks themselves were seen as prophetic by 23 percent of Americans in a Time/CNN poll conducted in June of 2002. That poll is noted by Timothy Weber, author of "On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend," in an excerpt published at Beliefnet. "[O]ver one-third of those Americans who support Israel report that they do so," Weber wrote, "because they believe the Bible teaches that the Jews must possess their own country in the Holy Land before Jesus can return."

Cruz has repeatedly emphasized the religious arguments for defending Israel. In his closing statement during the debate, Cruz swore that he would "begin the process of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem" — a reference to the long-standing debate over whether or not the city should be recognized as Israel's capital after it was captured during the Arab-Israeli War.

That argument is a winner for Cruz, who is an evangelical Christian and who hopes to re-solidy his support from that group. Rubio's argument, too, played to his primary electorate aspirations: Focusing on the strategic role that the country plays in foreign relations. Given the importance of Israel to conservatives and religious voters, these responses were themselves strategically — and, no doubt, sincerely -- offered.

If you're curious how Trump replied to Blitzer, he replied in very Trumpian fashion.

"I was the grand marshall down Fifth Avenue a number of years ago for the Israeli Day Parade," Trump said. "I have very close ties to Israel. I've received the Tree of Life Award and many of the greatest awards given by Israel."

This doesn't seem to have been mentioned in any polling.