Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at the Republican presidential debate October 18, 2011. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

For those of you not keeping track at home during last night’s Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Las Vegas, Israel came up a dozen times—and, thanks to some newsy questions from host Anderson Cooper, provoked some unscripted back-and-forth on a subject that in previous forums hasn’t gone much beyond standard AIPAC-friendly boilerplate.

First there was Herman Cain, fresh from his tête-à-tête with Mitt Romney about apples and oranges and income taxes, saying that he could see himself agreeing to the kind of prisoner swap that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted to free Gilad Shalit, but nevertheless insisting that he would never agree to a similar deal on Guantanamo Bay prisoners to rescue an American hostage. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann promptly agreed, saying, “We don’t negotiate.”

But then Rep. Ron Paul, Republican of Texas and self-appointed bullshit-caller, chimed in. “I want to ask a question,” he started, his shoulders disappearing into a suit jacket that looked a size too big. “Are you all willing to condemn Ronald Reagan for exchanging weapons for hostages out of Iran?”

Crickets. Iran-Contra? Really? seemed to be the collective thought bubble from the group. Finally, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum took the bait. “Iran was a sovereign country,” he began. Paul fired back, “So they were our good friends?” Santorum stammered back a reply that seemed to suggest he thinks the Palestinian Authority has sovereign status, and accordingly, is, like Iran, OK to negotiate with.

But at that point, Texas Gov. Rick Perry had just finished saying that the Palestinians had committed a “travesty” by circumventing the peace process and going to the United Nations with their statehood bid last month. This, he said, was an argument for de-funding the U.N. Paul hopped in there, too: “I would cut all foreign aid,” he said—including Israel. “I don’t think aid to Israel actually helps them,” he went on. “That foreign aid makes Israel dependent on us, it softens them for their own economy.” Then, the kicker: “They should have their sovereignty back. They should be able to deal with their neighbors at their own will.”

There was applause from the audience, some of whose more Tea Party-inclined members clearly agreed with Paul’s overriding insistence that American tax dollars stay in American hands. (Never mind that a large chunk of aid to Israel comes back to U.S. defense contractors.) Then Bachmann quickly, smoothly, stepped in to get everyone back on message. “We should not be cutting aid to Israel,” she said, smiling. “Israel is our greatest ally.” Again, the audience burst into applause.

Republicans Take Off Gloves in Vegas Debate [LAT]
Full Transcript CNN Western Republican Presidential Debate [CNN]