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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Shimon Peres; Interview With Benjamin Netanyahu

Aired January 8, 2006 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's 11:00 a.m. in Washington, 8:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 6:00 p.m. here in Jerusalem and 7:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for this special "Late Edition."
We'll get to the story of how the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke is affecting politics and peacemaking right here in the Middle East. We'll get to that in just a few moments. First, though, let's get a check of what's in the news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, fighting for his life right now. But doctors earlier today offered a glimmer of hope. CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney is outside the Hadassah hospital here in Jerusalem. She's standing by with details.

Fionnuala?

FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Ariel Sharon remains in intensive care at the Hadassah Medical Center. His condition remains critical but stable. As you say, though, doctors say that following a further brain scan Sunday morning, he was able to determine that there had been a further improvement, a further slight improvement in the 77-year-old prime minister's condition.

Now, the doctors say that they will carry out a further brain scan on Monday morning, and if that is satisfactory, they will then begin the critical process of slowly weaning Ariel Sharon from that deep anesthetic which has kept him in a very deep coma for the past four days.

It will be then and only then over a process which will last several hours that they will be able to determine the extent of the damage he may have suffered.

Meanwhile, Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, who transferred power from Ariel Sharon on Wednesday night, held his first cabinet meeting on Sunday. The Israeli government here doing its best to give the impression of business as usual, sitting beside the empty chair that Ariel Sharon usually holds.

But the focus here remaining at the hospital and that critical day, tomorrow, Monday, after that further brain scan.

Wolf? BLITZER: Fionnuala Sweeney at the Hadassah Medical Center, thank you very much.

And we'll have much more on the fallout from Ariel Sharon's massive stroke. That's coming up momentarily.

But let's move on to another developing story we're following, this one in Iraq. Today 12 United States military personnel were killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash, ending an extremely violent week in Iraq.

CNN's Michael Holmes is following the story. He's joining us now live from Baghdad.

Michael?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Wolf. Yes, a violent week indeed, a deadly one for both Iraqis and for Americans.

As you said, this latest news coming in about this Black Hawk going down in the northwest of the country, about 12 kilometers east of Tal-Afah. You see there a picture of a Black Hawk. It carries a crew of four and can carry up to a dozen or so passengers -- on this occasion, eight of them. Twelve people have died.

It crashed shortly before midnight last evening, and that's about 19 or so hours ago. It wasn't found until about midday. And so we have this situation now in this country where the weather has been bad the last few days, but an investigation is under way. The cause of the accident not known.

The Black Hawk was flying in support of the 101st Airborne. It was part of a two-ship flight moving between bases in that northwest part of the country when communications were lost. And then, as I said, at noon today, we find out that it indeed had crashed.

This comes, Wolf, after news that five U.S. Marines also died, three of them in Ramadi, in separate exchanges of gunfire, killed by small arms, and also two Marines were also -- sorry, that was in Fallujah, not Ramadi. Apologies. And two others were killed in roadside bombs.

So, as you said, Wolf, a very deadly period. In fact, 28 Americans dead since Thursday.

Wolf?

BLITZER: Michael Holmes reporting for us from Baghdad.

We'll get back to you. Thank you very much.

Like Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres has been a major force in Israeli politics for as long as there has been a state of Israel. A leader of the Labour Party, he served twice as this nation's prime minister. Until recently, he was Ariel Sharon's deputy prime minister. He's a supporter of Sharon's new centrist party called Kadima. He's joining us now live from Tel Aviv.

Mr. Prime Minister, welcome back to "Late Edition." Too bad we have to meet under these circumstances. You've worked so closely with Ariel Sharon over these many years. You've often been political rivals. But your thoughts right now on what this country is going through?

SHIMON PERES, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Well, the country is in pain. That was a great respect, I would say even love, for Ariel Sharon over the last three years, three, four years, when he took the cause of peace determinedly, as he usually does, with great talent, with great determination. And people are very much concerned what will be the future like.

BLITZER: Well, what do you hope unfolds between now and the scheduled elections at the end of March? Ehud Olmert is the acting prime minister. I assume if the doctors say Ariel Sharon can no longer serve as prime minister, he then becomes prime minister.

What do you see unfolding in the short term?

PERES: I think Ehud Olmert will run the government. I think it's a proper decision. It's right legally because Sharon has nominated Ehud Olmert when he was in full strength to serve as an acting prime minister if the need going forward. It's legally right. It's politically wise. It's a good choice. The man has a lot of experience. And I think as far as policies are concerned, he will clearly continue the policies of Mr. Ariel Sharon.

BLITZER: What will be your role between now and the elections at the end of March?

PERES: I shall help to win the elections, but also to prepare a platform for peace. My real interest is not the post of minister or not even a member of the government. All my life I fought for peace, and I'm looking for the right opportunity to serve peace further.

In spite of all the pessimistic views about what's taking place in the Palestinian camp, about the problems inside Israel, I remain a believer in the continuation of peace. On the contrary, maybe that out of those crises that have assembled together right now, there may emerge a great opportunity to go further after Gaza and try to look for a perfect or a perfectly possible solution in the West Bank in accordance with the road map.

BLITZER: Between now and the elections scheduled for March 28th, will you urge your supporters to vote for Sharon's new centrist party, called the Kadima Party, or will you urge them to vote for your old Labour Party with which you were so synonymous over these decades of Israel's existence?

PERES: What really happened is that the Kadima Party came very close to the Labour platform. I didn't change my views. I changed my frame of action. And today Sharon really is almost identical in his views to our own. And I think in order to have peace, you need the majority, not just an idea. An idea without a majority is a poem (ph). And I think the Kadima Party may represent a real backbone for the peacemaking. And that's the major problem (inaudible) national call to supporters, my supporters, to vote for peace, to vote for a majority for peace and, as a consequence, to vote for Kadima.

BLITZER: And will you serve as -- on the list that will be put before the voters in Israel for the next Knesset, the next parliament, will you serve as one of those on the Kadima list?

PERES: Probably, yes. We are discussing it.

You know, again and again, it's not the list and not the position that took me Kadima. It's really the occasion and the hope for peace that I am there. So the other considerations are secondary.

But not to avoid your questions, I would say probably yes, I shall be on the list.

BLITZER: And there is no doubt, is there, at this point, that Ehud Olmert will be number one on that list, as far as you're concerned?

PERES: The answer is clearly yes, positively yes.

BLITZER: No doubt.

Even though there was a poll that was published in Haaretz, one of the leading newspapers here in Israel, on Friday which showed that you would even do better atop that Kadima list than he would do, you're willing to let him take that leadership and you're not going to challenge him for the leadership of Kadima. Is that right?

PERES: I have had a discussion with myself, asked myself what do I want to do? And the answer is not to be a prime minister, but really concerned about peace. When you're a prime minister, you have to spend so much time on issues that are not necessarily connected to peace -- personal frictions, dilemmas, economy. I want to devote whatever time and energy I have for the peace process.

And I've learned a second lesson: Don't fight too much for the credit. Because if you fight for the credit, you have an endless fight within the party. Credit is secondary. If you don't fight for credit, you have the credit to do the right things. And that is my choice and my desire.

BLITZER: As you know, the Palestinians have their own elections scheduled for January 25th. If they take place, by almost all accounts, Hamas will do very well.

What should Israel's policy be in dealing with Hamas if they get elected to their assembly in significant numbers, as is widely expected?

PERES: If Hamas will not change its ideology and practice, there will be an armed group, and if they will come to the negotiating table with bombs and rifles, we shall not come with smiles and happiness. So they have to give up the terror.

And then again, if they will really win the elections, which I don't believe they will, do you imagine any country in the world that will finance a Hamas-like government that will support their policies? It's impossible. You know, Gandhi once said when a cat is chasing a mouse, there is no sense that a mouse will declare cease-fire, not even temporarily. You have to handle the cat. And that is for the Palestinians' sake, not only for us.

So, I mean, if they will change, and they won't be a terroristic organization, it's one story. If they'll remain unchanged, they're not a partner.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, one final question before I let you go.

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently was quoted as saying this: "Israel must be wiped off the map of the world. And God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and zionists." As you know, there's deep concern here in Israel, the United States, that the Iranians may be trying to develop a nuclear bomb. Would you support a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, if necessary?

PERES: I think that Iran is a danger to the rest of the world. I don't think Israel should monopolize this danger and make it into an Iranian-Israeli conflict.

I think it's not only that they develop the nuclear bombs, but also long-range missiles. What for? They say they need the energy of the nuclear capacity for civilian use. What do they need a 2,000-mile missile for?

I want to tell you, I believe the real fight, no matter what this very unique person is saying in the name of the God that they think occasionally consider that is the God, because the God never said to wipe out Israel unless he replaces it.

But I want to say the following. The real struggle today with Iran, but for the bomb, but for the missiles, is about Iraq. The Iranians, no matter what they say, their major aim is to convert Iraq into a Shiite country. Until now, Iran is the only Shiite country where almost the majority of the Arabs are Sunnis. And they want to have an Arab Shiite country. And all the rhetorics, (inaudible), all an attempt to increase the tension so they may win in Iraq.

And I think there is a need for a clear, united policy by the international community. As long as there is a divided mind, the Iranians will play with the divisions.

BLITZER: Shimon Peres, thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition." Appreciate it very much.

And in our next hour, we'll have a special interview with a man who split with Ariel Sharon over the withdrawal from Gaza settlements and the Gaza Strip, the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll join us here on "Late Edition."

Just ahead, we'll find out how the Palestinians see their future. We'll speak with their chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat.

Plus, the road ahead for U.S. policies in the Middle East. We'll get special insight from former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the United Nations, Thomas Pickering.

And later, scandals in Washington, turmoil in Congress. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, he'll be joining us with his thoughts on what's going on.

From Jerusalem, this is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Web question of the week asks this: How will Israel's changing leadership affect the Middle East peace process? Help it? Hinder it? Or not affect it at all? You can cast your vote at cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results at the end of this program.

Straight ahead, we'll find out what the Palestinians think will happen in the peace process. I'll be joined live by Saeb Erakat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.

Live from Jerusalem, you're watching "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're in Jerusalem.

Under Ariel Sharon, Israel pulled its troops out of the Gaza strip, also dismantled settlements there, started to lay the groundwork for a new round of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Joining us now here in Jerusalem is Saeb Erakat. He's the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.

Saeb Erakat, thanks very much for joining us.

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Ariel Sharon. You've watched his stroke unfold. Your president, Mahmoud Abbas has called Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister.

What does this mean from the Palestinian perspective?

ERAKAT: Well, to begin with, we called our Israeli colleagues, extended our deepest sympathies and well wishes. And, you know, a few weeks ago when Mr. Sharon broke from the Likud and formed Kadima, it was a political volcano erupting in Israel. Now, he's ill in the hospital, another volcano erupting in Israel.

As Palestinians, we happen to live in the slopes of this volcano. The lava would be the first to be -- we just, to tell you the truth, Wolf -- internal Israeli business, domestic Israeli affairs -- but the truth is, if somebody sneezes in Tel Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho.

Now we are watching this progression very closely.

BLITZER: We see a lot of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, almost joyous. They're, celebrating that Sharon is so critically ill. Is he still reviled in much of the Palestinian community?

ERAKAT: Well, you know, you saw some Palestinians celebrating and you saw some Jews celebrating in Hebron, the settler community.

BLITZER: A very tiny number.

ERAKAT: I believe that both are tiny and both unacceptable because, in such circumstances, it was me who offered my sympathies and President Abbas who called Mr. Olmert and so on.

But the fact of the matter, where Mr. Sharon, knowing him, he was a straight-shooting person, very candid, sometimes undiplomatic. His trust level on us was very low.

And, unfortunately, he stopped negotiations and did not make us partners. He won the battle with unilateralism, dictating rather than negotiations.

BLITZER: So, what do you think about his immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, presumably, at least until the Israeli elections at the end of March, the next prime minister of Israel.

What kind of relationship do you think the Palestinians will have with him?

ERAKAT: Well, we offer him our hands and urge him to consider coming back and resuming negotiations immediately because I believe this is the only way for Palestinians and Israelis to stay the course and to save lives and to change the pattern of the way we are living now.

This may sound as wishful thinking, but to Mr. Olmert, I tell him, the only way to bring this vicious cycle of violence and counter- violence is resuming negotiations.

And I hope that if Mr. Olmert can't do it now because of the confusion and transition, I hope that when the Israeli voters go to elect their new leaders, I hope they will elect a leadership willing to commit to peace and negotiations because the ways of violence, settlements, wars, dictation, assassinations, have proved only that -- can enlarge the cycle of violence, counter-violence, hate and so on.

BLITZER: What about the Palestinian elections? Will they take place on January 25th as scheduled?

ERAKAT: In my opinion, yes. And we want them to take place. And I would urge Mr. Olmert to make sure that we have the same arrangements we had in East Jerusalem as we did in 1996 and when we elected president Abbas in 2005.

BLITZER: You want the Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem to be able to vote for election and to be able to vote in East Jerusalem or absentee ballots?

ERAKAT: No, to be able to vote in East Jerusalem as they did in the 1996 elections when we had an agreement with Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres and as they when they voted for President Abbas, last January, 2005, when Prime Minister Sharon was in office.

So, we hope that the Israelis will not give -- will go ahead with the arrangements we had before. And I believe this election must take place on January 25th.

BLITZER: How worried are you that the militant groups like Hamas will dominate these elections and that the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas will come out not necessarily at top?

ERAKAT: Look, I belong to Fatah Party. And we are exerting maximum effort and determined to win these elections. But I cannot tell you the results of elections before January 26th.

This is a democratic choice of Palestinians. But, mark my words, let those who are running for this election, including Hamas and anybody else, know that the democracy is a two way street.

Yes, you have the right to go to the ballots, choose your representatives. But those who participate in the elections must understand that these elections are the way to the one authority, the rule of law, and the one legal gun.

This is the truth about why we are having these elections, why we are determined to have all participate in these elections, because we want to achieve the rule of law, the oneness of the authority and the one legal gun.

BLITZER: The New York Times has a lengthy article -- I don't know if you saw it today -- about the Palestinian Authority and its finances, that you're going broke apparently.

Nigel Roberts, the regional director of the World Bank is quoted as saying -- let me read it: "The Palestinian Authority is in imminent functional bankruptcy. In any given month now, they might find themselves unable to pay their basic salaries and minimal operational costs."

Is that true? ERAKAT: That's true. That's true, simply because we are a people under occupation. We have counted on the donor community to assist us in terms of the infrastructural projects and some budgetary support.

And failure of the donor countries -- we are people with no oil wells, with no gold mines. We cannot even trade between the West Bank and Gaza. We cannot, you know. I found a banana sold at $1,000 last year from my constituents in Jericho because we were able to get to the Gaza market. It's being sold at $2,000 today because I cannot get the bananas to the Gaza market.

So, yes, we need the international donor community to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, to meet their commitments and to help achieve what they promised, what they have pledged to do. And that's the truth because all the taxes we collect under these circumstances can hardly pay the salaries of the Palestinian Authority.

BLITZER: We have to, unfortunately, leave it there. Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, good luck to you. Good luck to the Palestinians. Good luck to the Israelis as well.

These are difficult times here in the Middle East. I appreciate you joining us.

ERAKAT: Thank you.

BLITZER: And coming up on "Late Edition," seeking solutions: the former U.S. national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and the United Nations, Thomas Pickering. They'll weigh in on the road ahead. That's coming up

Also, a quick check of what is in the news right now, including the latest on the surviving miner in the West Virginia mine disaster.

Stay with "Late Edition." We're live from Jerusalem.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARIEL SHARON, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: I believe that the president had decided that one cannot get into compromise with terror, and I think it's very important we share those values.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Ariel Sharon speaking back in 2002. Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're live in Jerusalem.

What happens to the United States policy in the Middle East with Ariel Sharon no longer able to serve as prime minister? Joining us from Washington with special perspective, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser during the Carter administration. Ambassador Thomas Pickering; he served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as well as to Israel during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

Gentlemen, welcome back to Late Edition. And Dr. Brzezinski, I'll start with you. This is a delicate moment in the Middle East, with Ariel Sharon gravely ill as he is. What do you recommend? What should the U.S. posture be right now?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Essentially continuity. It seems to me that what we want to avoid is some sort of a stalemate with Sharon not in the picture anymore, because whatever his intentions, he was a very major figure, and he acted like de Gaulle. He broke the logjam in Israel regarding the existence of a Palestinian state.

So I think we ought to at least go on record -- the president should go on record -- reiterating some of the key points that the president has made over the last two years, first to Sharon, and then to President Abbas. Namely, no right of return. No automaticity for '67 lines. Changes in these lines by mutual agreement, and a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

I think it is important to keep that progress afloat, even if there is a transitional stalemate now.

BLITZER: Ambassador Pickering, you agree with Dr. Brzezinski?

THOMAS PICKERING, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL: I do. I agree with Zbig very much. The real problem, of course, is whether the Israeli political system can produce a formula like the Sharon formula again, and that will be fascinating.

In effect, the Sharon formula had become something like the Rabin formula: A tough guy for a hard situation, looking down the road at the future of Israel and understanding that the Israeli future depended heavily on living in the region in a state of peace, as Zbig said, with the Palestinian state, with a process to get there that was equitable and that brought most of those folks along.

Right now, the turmoil among the Palestinians and obviously the uncertainties in Israel are two very, very big factors the United States is going to have to contend with.

The way to contend with them, I agree with Zbig, is to try to do everything you can to keep the present situation on track, but recognize that there are obvious difficulties to be looked at as we stare into the future here.

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski, what about the Palestinian side of this equation? It looks like Hamas and other militant groups are going to do pretty well in the January 25th Palestinian elections. Hamas is considered by the U.S. government, by the State Department as a terrorist organization. U.S. diplomats are not allowed to have anything to do with Hamas. What should the U.S. posture be if Hamas gets elected?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, you know, Wolf, I thought your exchange with Peres on this was very illuminating. Because he said, in effect, if Hamas changes, then it has changed. And my view is, if Hamas enters the parliamentary game, if it competes in a democratic fashion, it then begins the process of transforming itself in effect into a political party. And that's all to the good.

Do remember that at one point the British thought the Sterngan (ph) and the Ergun (ph) were terrorist organizations. Yet they evolved into a major political party.

The point is, if Hamas can change, we should encourage it. If it doesn't, then obviously it's going to be a very major setback, because we don't want parliamentarians with guns and with bombs in any new Palestinian Assembly.

BLITZER: Well, that's a fair question, Ambassador Pickering. You lived in this part of the world. You were the U.S. ambassador to Israel. You know the situation quite well. Hamas does not support a two-state solution. They support a one-state solution, namely Palestine in all of Israel, no Israel would they recognize.

Do you believe Hamas is capable of making that change and coming to terms with the existence of a Jewish state here in the Middle East?

PICKERING: It might be, Wolf, that in answering that question, I'll be talking about a triumph of hope over reality, and I understand that, and we obviously have to be realistic. And you're absolutely right about what Hamas stands for.

I'd like to think that change can come. And, you know, even Hezbollah has now two wings. Hamas is moving toward a two- wing effort. It might not be beyond the realm of possibility, as Shimon and Zbig suggest, that something could grow out of this that would look down the road at a future.

There is no future, in my view, in guns and in bombs. That's the hard reality. And in my view, there should be no political place, as we have said here, for guns and bombs in the negotiating process.

Whether that can actually occur or not or whether we will go through another long, agonizing, debilitating period is one of the key questions that Sharon's apparent subtraction from the scene now puts starkly before us and that we'll have to face.

The best thing, obviously, is hope for the best, but make your plans to deal with the worst possible circumstances, because, in effect, under this particular situation, that may be what you have to deal with.

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski, I spoke on Friday with the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. And I asked him about a possible Israeli unilateral preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear reactors. He suggested that there was still time for diplomacy, sanctions, the United Nations Security Council. But listen to what he said in underscoring Israel's concern.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EHUD BARAK, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Within six months, the Iranians might begin a semi-industrial-sized effort to enrich uranium through gas centrifuges. They have 40 metric tons, probably more, of UF6, which is the starting point for enrichment. And within three or six years they might get nuclear devices.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How worried are you, Dr. Brzezinski, that Israel, when all is said and done, could launch a preemptive strike, as Israel did in 1981 against Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak under Saddam Hussein?

BRZEZINSKI: I think the situation is very different. That strike several years ago was against a single target. This would have to be a really comprehensive strike, perhaps lasting over several days. And Israel would have to traverse American-controlled airspace over either the Persian Gulf or over Iraq itself. That would implicate us directly in that attack. And the Iranian response, then, would be a directed at us as much as at Israel. And we would pay an enormous price in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and most important of all in terms of access to oil, because the Iranians could really impede that very dramatically.

So it would be a calamity. And I'm sure that the United States will use its good auspices to discourage the Israelis from doing that, while pursuing every effort to delay as long as possible Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability. And in international politics, sometimes a delay is as good as prevention.

BLITZER: What about that, Ambassador Pickering? Do you want to elaborate, do you want to add anything?

PICKERING: Yes, two quick thoughts.

I would say that, as long as there is a negotiating solution possible, a military solution should stay on the table but not be implemented.

And secondly, if in fact there is a military solution -- and I agree totally with Zbig on its effects -- but if it is a military solution, then we ought to consider ourselves as the first employers of that solution, but as I said earlier, only after we can see, in fact, that the diplomatic solution tried every route to success and that route is not possible.

BLITZER: Dr. Brzezinski, you have a lengthy piece in The Washington Post today on Iraq. And you come down with some recommendations to the president. When all is said and done, though, can the U.S. win in Iraq right now?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, it all depends, obviously, on the definition of victory. And one of my points in the article is the administration has a totally unrealistic definition of victory. The kind of victory the administration seeks I do not believe is attainable unless we vastly increase our military commitment.

The notion that we're going to somehow or other create a national Iraqi army is a myth. The Iraqis are not going have a national army because the Kurds don't want to be part of a single national army. Neither do the Shiites and neither do the Sunnis.

The fact of the matter is that the best we can get in Iraq is some sort of a loose formation dominated by the Kurds and the Shiites. And that we can have, I think, if we disengage reasonably promptly. If we persist in our endeavor, we'll both intensify the anti- insurgency, the insurgents against us, and the sectarian war, both being negatively affective for us.

BLITZER: Unfortunately we have to leave it there. We're out of time. Dr. Brzezinski, Ambassador Pickering, as usual, thanks for joining us on "Late Edition." And just ahead, with Israel facing political uncertainty right now, there are deep concerns about what's ahead for this country and for peace in the region. We'll get some insight when "Late Edition" continues.

And later, Judge Samuel Alito begins his Supreme Court confirmation hearings back in Washington tomorrow. Senators Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy, they're standing by to take us through the process.

"Late Edition" from Jerusalem will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A long political journey for the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, from a hard-liner to a surprising, if still cautious, backer of Israeli-Palestinian peace moves.

Welcome back to our special "Late Edition" from Jerusalem.

Joining us now from Tel Aviv, a veteran observer of Israeli politics, the Middle East peace process, the journalist and author Uri Dan.

Uri, thanks very much for joining us.

You've been close to Sharon for so many years, very good friends with him. What would he have wanted right now? If he could speak out right now, in the short term what would he want?

URI DAN, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST: Just keep our democracy running. We are the only -- you'd say Israel is the only stable democracy in the Middle East.

And by the way, everything is OK around. You know, when I heard today the report by the doctors, I think there are some signs of hope, a glimmer of hope. And let's see if the recovery process can start tomorrow. So when someone says today, you know, some newspapers and others, "The era of Sharon is over," I think they are too early to give their verdict about it.

BLITZER: Well, assuming he can't recover, though, do you think he would have wanted Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister right now, to emerge from the elections at the end of March as Israel's next prime minister?

DAN: I will not go into any Israeli politics. My good friend for 51 years is struggling for his life. And I hope, as millions of Israelis are hoping, that we will see him back.

And, until -- you know, 90 hours passed since the first surgery and this man, Sharon, the Israeli Gulliver, the Jewish Gulliver, the Jewish giant who now got the recognition of all these people as a Biblical leader, I'll say -- really, I don't think that one should go into future politics while Ariel Sharon is struggling for his life.

BLITZER: As you point out, you have known him for a long time; you've been friends with him for a long time. What do you believe motivated him to move toward the center of the Israeli political spectrum?

DAN: The care for the security of Israel, the care for the future of the Jewish state, understanding completely the dangers, the threats.

You talked just a while ago about the Iranian nuclear threat. You know -- probably, you heard about those calls by the Iranian president to wipe off Israel from the map.

So, we've got a new Hitleristic move coming from Iran, backed by the suicide bombers. Now, Mr. Sharon was so successful in keeping the Jewish nation here in Israel together during a six years' war.

Israel entered into the sixth year of the war. He succeeded in keeping the United States, President George W. Bush, as a strong ally, a very friendly ally to Israel.

He succeeded -- Ariel Sharon -- to minimize the damage of the suicide bombers and he wanted to outline the security borders for Israel for many years to come, understanding that Israel might find the situation that there is no partner on the other side.

Therefore, he moved in the Gaza strip and then was ready to stabilize the lines of the blocks of settlements of united Jerusalem and the security buffer zone in the valley of Jordan. This is his legacy and his life.

He's still alive. And this will be also the legacy for the future, in any case.

BLITZER: Uri Dan, a veteran Israeli reporter and author. Thanks, as usual, for joining us. Let's hope that you're right and that, in the Holy land, Ariel Sharon can make a spectacular recovery. We shall see. I appreciate it very much.

DAN: Absolutely. Here, a phone call to God is a local call. BLITZER: Here, a phone call to God is a local call. That's what Uri Dan says.

Don't forget our Web question: "How will Israel's changing leadership affect the Middle East peace process?" Help it, hinder it, or have no effect? You can cast your vote. Go to CNN.com/lateedition. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Live from Jerusalem, this is a special Late Edition, the last word in Sunday talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: There is unity in the country in the hopes that this particular man, who is now battling for his life, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, wins that battle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: A nation waits and wonder. As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fights for his life, what are the next political steps for his country? An exclusive interview with former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We look forward to a dignified and respectful hearing, leading to an up-or-down vote by January 20th.

U.S. SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): If Judge Alito stonewalls at the hearings, he could very well jeopardize his nomination.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Drawing the judicial battle lines. Will President Bush's choice for the high court spark a Senate showdown? We'll preview Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings, and assess the changing political situation in Israel with the Senate Judiciary Committee's Republican Chairman Arlen Specter and the panel's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy.

From the controversy over domestic spying to a widening lobbying scandal on Capitol Hill. The always outspoken Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean weighs in on the potential political impact in 2006.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Jerusalem, this is Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.

BLITZER: And welcome back. We'll get to my interview with the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Senators Specter and Leahy in just a few minutes. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's making news right now.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Gerri.

Doctors here in Jerusalem announced a slight improvement of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's condition, but tomorrow could be a key day in determining his recovery. CNN's Fionnuala Sweeney is over at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. She has the latest -- Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: Indeed, Wolf, Ariel Sharon lies in critical but stable condition at the Hadassah Medical Center here on the seventh floor in intensive care. There was a brain scan was carried out on him this morning, and as you mentioned, he did seem to have slightly improved, but his life is still in extreme danger.

Now, the doctors say what they are going to do is carry out another brain scan on Monday morning, and if the results of that are satisfactory, they'll then begin the process of very slowly weaning him off the anesthetic under which he's been for the past four days. That has kept him in a very deep coma, and the process of weaning him off that anesthetic will take place over a period of hours, and it is an extremely crucial time for the prime minister, because it will be during that time that the doctors will be able to determine the extent of any brain damage.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government giving its best impression of business as usual. The acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, holding his first cabinet meeting of the week, sitting beside the empty chair usually held by Ariel Sharon.

There is an election campaign that's supposed to be under way here, of course -- elections due at the end of March -- but nobody officially campaigning at the moment. There is, you could say, an air of suspended reality as the country focuses on this hospital and the man inside it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Fionnuala, thanks very much.

And we heard in the first hour of Late Edition the former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres endorsing Ehud Olmert as he begins to get ready for the political campaign, the elections scheduled here in Israel at the end of March.

We're also keeping a close eye on another developing story unfolding right now, this one in Iraq, where 12 more U.S. troops were killed today after a Black Hawk helicopter went down.

Michael Holmes is on the scene for us in Baghdad and he has details -- Michael.

HOLMES: Wolf, hello to you. That's right. All of these Americans were killed when this Black Hawk helicopter went down 12 kilometers east of Tal Afar -- that's in the northwest of the country. You see there a Black Hawk helicopter. It carries a crew of two pilots, two gunners and around 10 or so passengers. On this occasion, eight passenger were on board.

It was flying as part of a two-ship flight moving between bases in that area, which is just west of Mosul. It crashed shortly before midnight local time.

However, it was 12 hours later that the wreckage was found, and it was discovered that all of those aboard perished.

So the names of the deceased are being withheld until relatives are notified, and an investigation is under way.

We can also report to you, Wolf, that the weather was pretty bad yesterday. Whether that played an influence in this, we're yet to know.

I flew down on a Black Hawk yesterday. It was a pretty bumpy ride.

Also I have to tell you that there's been 17 dead U.S. servicemen in the last 24 hours here, 28 dead since Thursday. And of course, some 200 dead Iraqis in various incidents.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Michael, thanks very much. We'll check back with you in Baghdad as developments occur.

Ariel Sharon's decision to relinquish Gaza to the Palestinians cost him his relationship with his base, his conservative Likud Party, as well as a prominent member of this cabinet, the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Just a short while ago, I spoke with Benjamin Netanyahu from Tel Aviv.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Prime Minister Netanyahu, welcome back to Late Edition. You worked so closely with Prime Minister Sharon over many years in various capacities. As you see what's happening at the Hadassah Medical Center here in Jerusalem right now, what goes through your mind?

NETANYAHU: I think that there is something that I feel and every Israeli feels, and probably many friends of Israel around the world, that Ariel Sharon, who led so many battles for the security of Israel, is now making the great battle for his life, and we all are united in prayer that he succeeds. I think -- I think that that's what people want to hear and want to see, that -- that he makes it through this terrible ordeal.

BLITZER: Do you regret leaving his cabinet in recent weeks?

NETANYAHU: No, I think that there are obviously questions of policy that can crop up at any particular time, but over the years -- I've known Ariel Sharon for 33 years. Actually, my first meeting with him was on the banks of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, when I saw his resolve, his courage, his determination. And we've had the ability to work together over many, many things. On many things, we saw eye to eye; on a few things, we didn't. He served in my government; I served in his government. And we had I think a stellar success in rescuing the Israeli economy in the last three years, really to make it one of the great successes of the developed economies of the world.

But equally, we had the ability to work together for Israel's security, to restore Israel's security, and I think Sharon has been a great leader. You can agree with him or disagree with him, but you cannot -- you cannot -- it's impossible not to appreciate it and respect his leadership. He's a great leader.

BLITZER: You split with him on the issue of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, the dismantling of Jewish settlements there. Looking back, knowing what you know right now, did he do the right thing in calling for and implementing a withdrawal from Gaza?

NETANYAHU: I think time will be the judge of everything, but I don't think time will judge Sharon harshly in the larger perspective of his contributions to Israel's security. This is a man who fought in the war of independence, and the Suez crisis, who had brilliant, just brilliant military contributions in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was with its back against the wall, perhaps in its worst period, and he performed brilliantly in flanking the Egyptian army and changing the tide of battle, in Lebanon fighting terror and fighting terror in recent years as well.

So I think history will judge him as the great leader that he is, and notwithstanding differences of opinion that exist, existed, I think there is a -- I certainly share the view that many in Israel share, and I've always said it. I think he's one of our great generals. I think he's been one of our great political leaders.

BLITZER: Just one historic footnote: If you had been still in the Israeli cabinet right now, instead of having left, would you be the acting prime minister right now?

NETANYAHU: No. There is a law there, and it's quite clear, that one of the strengths that you see in Israel today is so apparent -- Israel is a democracy with very strong institutions and the rule of law. And we have a very clear procedure in these cases, which we hope we never get to, but unfortunately we do on occasion.

And you see the strength and resilience of Israeli democracy, the continuity and also the fact that political leaders who are even political rivals who do the right thing at the right time. I think this is one of the moments where you have to put politics aside. However briefly, you put politics aside, and you do what is right, what is decent for the country. And that's what we've all been trying to do -- I certainly have been trying to do.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about this poll that came out in Haaretz on Friday. It showed that if the elections for the 120-member Israeli Knesset, the parliament, were held right now, Sharon's new centrist party, even without Sharon atop the list, would get about 40 seats; Labour would get about 18; Likud, your party, would only get about 13 seats.

That does not bode well for your political future if these poll numbers hold up between now and the scheduled elections at the end of March.

NETANYAHU: Well, I'm not going to discuss the politics. There are two and some months, almost three months left until the elections. I'm sure we'll have a lot of time to address these questions and a lot of time to see the shifting tide of public opinion.

I would prefer at this point to tell you that there is unity in the country in the hopes that this particular man who's now battling for his life, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, wins that battle, and I think that's where we are right now.

I think that the fog of politics, the fog of uncertainty will lift at a certain point. But I think right now what people want is certainty of his own survival, and that is really the main focal point right now of Israelis, of people in the streets, people in their homes. They're glued to their televisions, praying and hoping that he'll succeed.

BLITZER: Well, having said that, is there any possibility you might reunite with some of your former government colleagues, including those formerly in the Likud, like yourself, including the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and come back into this current government in advance of the elections?

NETANYAHU: Wolf, I've taken a timeout from politics, and I see that I have a hard time asking you to take a time out from political questions, but this is just not the moment. There will be moments, I'm sure, in the future, but this is not one of the moments where I'm going to engage in political speculation or in politics at all.

You can, I'm sure, understand and appreciate that when the prime minister of Israel and one of the great heroes of Israel is battling for his life, we can wait. Nothing will happen if we wait and, frankly, if you wait. It will take a few days to find out if we all hope -- as we all hope, that he's out of it. I think we can give him that time and that respect.

BLITZER: All right, fair enough.

Let's talk about Iran, which you and so many other Israelis see as a serious threat to Israel. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quoted as having said, "European countries have imposed an illegally established Zionist regime on the oppressed nation of Palestine. Give a piece of land somewhere in Europe or America and Canada or Alaska to Jews to set up their own state."

With Iran reportedly working aggressively to try to develop a nuclear bomb, you've been quoted as suggesting that perhaps Israel should think of some sort of preemptive strike, along the lines of what Israel did in 1981 when it destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak.

Explain your position on a preemptive strike.

NETANYAHU: No, I didn't say that, and if anyone said that I said it, they're actually engaging in misquoting.

What I did say and what I think is shared by an overwhelming number of people in Israel is that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is something that is dangerous to Israel and dangerous in fact to the world. And I think that we have to find a way, which could include diplomatic and other ways, to prevent that from happening.

Iran has clearly put Israel in its sights. It says so openly. Here's a man who says that he wants -- the president of Iran -- who says that he wants to erase a member state of the United Nations, he wants to erase it off the map of the Earth. Not only does he want to erase Israel, he wants to erase 3,000 years of Jewish history and our presence and our belonging to this particular land. I mean, where is the Bible coming from? Where is the whole of Jewish history? What is it all about? And yet we are supposed to be this foreign implantation that has no connection to this land.

Obviously, they don't subscribe to the idea that we will have to establish a modus vivendi with our Arab and Palestinian Arab neighbors, that we have to find a way to live together. He wants us to be wiped away. And that is an indication of the dangerous ideology that this regime has.

And it applies to us merely as what they call the Little Satan. The Great Satan is of course the United States; Europe is the Middle Satan. We are to them a foreign, Western implantation, and the West itself is some kind of cancerous growth that should be reversed. History was wrong. The rise of the West was wrong, and there are corrective measures, including the development of nuclear weapons.

That's very dangerous to the entire world. And I believe that we should find a way, as Prime Minister Sharon has said, as I have said, as many others have said, to prevent that danger from materializing, because all of us, all of us -- the United States, Israel, the West, the moderate Arab regimes -- everyone will be endangered by this development.

BLITZER: Prime Minister Netanyahu, as usual, thanks very much for joining us on our special "Late Edition" from Jerusalem. Thank you very much.

NETANYAHU: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And up next, judging Samuel Alito. We'll preview the Supreme Court nominee's confirmation hearings. They begin tomorrow. We'll speak with the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Arlen Specter, and the ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy.

Then, are the problems that led to President Bush's second-term slump taking a toll on Republicans in Congress? And what should the Democrats be doing? We'll hear from the always blunt Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean.

Our special "Late Edition," live from Jerusalem, continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's still time for you to weigh in on our Web question of the week: How will Israel's changing leadership affect the Middle East peace process? Help it? Hinder it? Or have no effect at all? You can cast your vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition.

Straight ahead, Senators Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy on this week's key developments.

You're watching "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk. We're live from Jerusalem.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're reporting tonight live from Jerusalem.

But, back in Washington, confirmation hearings are set to begin tomorrow for the U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito. And expectations are that it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for President Bush's choice.

Joining us now to talk about that, as well as other issues, are our guests, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Senators, always good to have you on "Late Edition." Thanks very much for joining us.

And Mr. Chairman, I'll start with you. Have you already made up your mind as to how you will vote as far as Samuel Alito's confirmation is concerned?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: I have not. I'm going to reserve my judgment until the hearings are concluded.

BLITZER: What is going to be the single most important factor, Mr. Chairman, that you will consider?

SPECTER: The most important factor is the way Judge Alito would approach the critical jurisprudential issues which will come before him.

The big issue in the minds of many is the woman's right to choose. And I want to see what are the considerations which he will apply, the precedence, the reliance on it.

I want to hear what he'll have to say about the balance of authority between the president's wartime powers under article II to conduct electronic surveillance with what appears to be a conflict with congressional intent on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; where he stands on the issue of congressional power with the Supreme Court and the courts generally taking over and legislating from the bench; many other issues on freedom of speech and religion, defendant's rights, application of the death penalty. And there's a long list, Wolf.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, before I bring in Senator Leahy, a quick question. If it becomes clear in the course of these confirmation hearings that Samuel Alito opposes or believes that Roe v. Wade was not justified, that being the decision that legalized abortion in the United States, would you then vote against his confirmation?

SPECTER: Wolf, I don't like to judge or face hypothetical questions. I think that it depends upon a totality of the circumstances. I've never applied a litmus test.

I voted for Chief Justice Rehnquist after he had voted against Roe earlier. I think it's a matter for the totality of the circumstances, instead of a set of litmus test.

BLITZER: Senator Leahy, you wanted to confirm John Roberts for the U.S. Supreme Court. Are you inclined to give Samuel Alito the benefit of the doubt and to confirm him as well?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: I didn't give John Roberts the benefit of the doubt. I was convinced -- I voted for him based on the answers he gave me during the hearings and the answers he gave me during nearly three hours of one-on-one meetings that we had.

But I want to know how independent Judge Alito will be. Here is a man -- keep in mind, he's the third person that's been nominated for this seat, for Sandra Day O'Connor who has been a pivotal person on the Supreme Court.

The first one was John Roberts, of course. The second one was Harriet Miers. The president was forced to withdraw her when a number of his core supporters on the far right said they weren't convinced that they knew how she would vote. So, they had to withdraw her.

Now, Judge Alito was vetted by Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby, among others. And when he was announced they immediately said, he's fine. We're OK with him.

Well, I want to know if he's going to be truly independent at a time when where we're seeing the illegal spying on Americans, when we see mine safety rules are violated or ignored and the same with environmental laws.

Can an ordinary American -- can an ordinary American expect that a member of the Supreme Court's going to stand up for them?

After all, there's 295 million Americans. There's only nine members of the Supreme Court. Seven have been appointed by Republicans. We want to know, though, whether he will be a Supreme Court justice for all Americans or will he be indebted to a narrow part of the Republican Party? But I'll make up mind based on what I hear.

BLITZER: Earlier today, Dianne Feinstein, another member of the Judiciary Committee, Democrat of California, said that, if she came away from these hearings convinced that Samuel Alito would move to oppose, to restrict a woman's right to have an abortion, she would then even go so far as to support a filibuster against him which would mean, in effect, 60 votes would be required to break that filibuster.

Are you taking the same stance as Senator Feinstein?

LEAHY: I'm taking the same stance as Senator Specter. I won't answer a hypothetical. I'll wait to see what happens.

I do feel that Judge Alito faces a great deal of difficulties if he does not answer questions. I think that the stakes are extraordinarily high for the average American in this case.

And I think most Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats, are going to want to know where he stands, certainly, on the question of a woman's right to choose -- it's very important.

But what about the questions of, can the president be above the law if there's illegal spying on Americans going on by presidential order, is the president above the law? What about questions of torture?

A whole lot of other areas that may come up before the Supreme Court -- we want to know where he stands. And if he does not give adequate answers, well then, he should be opposed.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, Senator Specter, if, in fact, some Democrats do launch a filibuster, do you believe there would be those 60 votes necessary to break that filibuster?

SPECTER: Wolf, I do not see any rational basis for filibustering Judge Alito.

We have had the so-called "Gang of 14" really break the clash which we had earlier last year, to avoid maintaining of the filibuster rights, to avoid having the nuclear constitutional option.

And the standard they set is a very under the constitution is a very high one, "extraordinary circumstances." And I don't think there's anything in sight which would justify a filibuster against Judge Alito.

LEAHY: I might say, Wolf that...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: If there were a filibuster, would you go along?

Go ahead, Senator.

LEAHY: I was just going to say, I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. I mean, let's find out if he answers. This is really up to Judge Alito.

Is he willing to answer the questions? Is he willing to be forthcoming? Now, he doesn't have to answer questions the way I might like.

He doesn't have to give me the answers I want, but at least answer the questions. Be honest and open and answer the questions. I think that's the first step, before we go to the next step.

I worry about hypotheticals. But, obviously if you had somebody who was against a woman's right to privacy, against the privacy of the average American, that creates a huge problem

But let's wait and see what the answers are. I agree with Senator Specter on that.

BLITZER: All right, Senators, stand by. We're going to take a quick break.

We have a lot more to talk about with Senators Specter and Leahy. I'll ask them when they expect to have hearings on domestic spying in the aftermath of the National Security Agency going ahead and wiretapping, eavesdropping on Americans without court warrants.

But, up next, we'll have also a quick check of what's in the news right now, including a day of burials for some of the miners killed in the West Virginia coal mine explosion. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "Late Edition." We're reporting tonight live from Jerusalem. And we're continuing our conversation now with the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and the committee's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Senator Specter, the Congressional Research Service, this nonpartisan research branch of the Library of Congress, came out with this report the other day on the domestic spying that the president authorized immediately after 9/11 to authorize surveillance, eavesdropping, wiretapping of Americans who are making overseas phone calls without a court warrant, and they concluded this. Let me read it to you.

"The Supreme Court has stated that Congress does indeed have power to regulate domestic surveillance and has not ruled on the extent to which Congress can act with respect to electronic surveillance to collect foreign intelligence information. Given such uncertainty, the administration's legal justification does not seem to be well-grounded."

Are you still inclined to go ahead with hearings on the president's decision?

SPECTER: I certainly am, Wolf. I think that there are very, very important questions involved here, very important to enable the president to act to fight terrorism. But there has to be a balance with our constitutional rights. And we need to have a much fuller explanation from the administration as to their reasoning.

I've already talked to Attorney General Gonzales about the matter. There ought to be an airing here in the Judiciary Committee. There is no intention to go into the secret matters which would impact on national security. But when you deal with legal issues, whether the authorization for the use of force could conceivably be stretched to cover electronic eavesdropping, what are the powers for the president that are Article II wartime powers, contrasted with the Congress, which has legislated under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Those are all matters in the public domain and ought to be publicly addressed.

BLITZER: When do you want to hold those hearings, Mr. Chairman?

SPECTER: I want to hold them early in February. Right now, we're obviously very busy with Judge Alito. That's going to carry us into the week following, perhaps beyond. But I want to start those hearings in early February.

BLITZER: What about you, Senator Leahy? Are you inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt on his decision to go ahead and authorize this kind of wiretapping? Or do you believe, as some of your Democratic colleagues did, that he went too far and may have even broken the law?

LEAHY: I agree with the report that he went too far. I believe that some of this wiretapping has been illegal -- and unnecessary. You know, this is the amazing thing about it. We have the FISA court, as Senator Specter said. There was no need for the president to authorize the illegal spying on Americans. Go to a court.

I mean, this is a country where we're based on checks and balances. We go on the assumption nobody's above the law, nobody's above the law, not the president, not members of the Senate, nobody's above the law. And you should follow the law. That's what's kept our democracy strong. I've felt that all my 30 years in the U.S. Senate. I've never felt it more. Let's obey the law.

And I think Senator Specter is to be commended for having these hearings. There are too darned few oversight hearings in the Congress. He's one of the notable exceptions.

And I think we have to have it. I think the American people have to know, why did it happen?

Again, you go down to the basic thing. No one in America is above the law, not the president, not me, not Senator Specter, not you, nobody is.

BLITZER: All right, fair enough. We'll leave it right there. Senator Leahy, Senator Specter, I'll see you in Washington tomorrow for these Alito hearings. We'll be covering them all week.

SPECTER: Happy landing.

LEAHY: Safe flight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks. Thank you very much.

I'll be back in Washington to start anchoring our coverage at noon eastern tomorrow.

Just ahead, tough times for Republicans in Congress. Could the Democrats benefit at the polls in November? We'll hear from the chairman of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean. He's standing by. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And welcome back to our special "Late Edition." We're reporting live from Jerusalem. It's been a week of dramatic developments, not only here in Israel, but in Washington as well, with one of the city's most powerful lobbyists pleading guilty in a bribery investigation and a potentially major shakeup among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now to talk about all this and more is the chairman of the Democratic party in the United States, Governor Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont.

Governor, thanks very much for joining us. On the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings which begin in Washington tomorrow, do you think Democrats should realistically go ahead and filibuster if necessary to prevent his confirmation?

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN: There are a couple of problems with Judge Alito. First of all, he appears to be outside the mainstream of where most Americans are on privacy for individuals, not just women's issues, but strip searching, OK'ing a strip search of a 10-year-old, these kinds of things.

The other thing which is also troubling is the conflict of interest case where he owned $400,000 worth of mutual funds and was willing to sit on a case involving the company. His order was later vacated.

Now, he promised the American people when he was confirmed that he would recuse himself.

So, the question that I have is, when he's answering the questions from Senator Leahy and Senator Specter or others, how are they going to know he's going to tell the truth, because he did not tell the truth when he said to the Senate Judiciary Committee 15 years ago that he would recuse himself from cases in which he had a financial interest.

BLITZER: Well, he later explained, though, that that was really a technical slip-up for which he apologized. That's not a good enough explanation for you?

DEAN: Well, the chief judge disagreed with him. The chief judge removed him from the case and ordered a new judge to hear it. So, you know, this is an ethically charged climate in Washington. There's enormous corruption scandals in both the White House, involving the chief procurement officer and Karl Rove and the vice president's office and the Senate and the House.

I don't think we want scandal to begin to touch the Supreme Court. So, I think we're going to watch very, very carefully to what the answers are to the Judiciary Committee.

I think there's some very disturbing questions around Judge Alito and I think we'll be looking forward to seeing what the answers to those questions are next week.

BLITZER: So, on the issue of a filibuster, where do you stand?

DEAN: Well, I don't have a vote on that one. That's going to be decided by Senator Leahy and Senator Reid and others. They'll decide, after they hear the answers, whether Judge Alito belongs on the bench or not. And that's what their prerogative is in the Senate.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Iraq. The president sought to reach out to some of his critics earlier in the week, bringing in some former secretaries of state, including Madeleine Albright, among others -- William Cohen, the former defense secretary during the Clinton administration.

Are you satisfied right now that the president's getting enough information from a variety of sources to better move forward as far as the situation in Iraq is concerned?

DEAN: Well, most of the reports that came out of that meeting, Wolf, were that the president engaged in a filibuster of his own in there. He talked at them for some time and then went in for a photo op and really didn't bother to ask most of them for their advice at all.

So, I think these photo op ideas that he's going to get advice and they're really nothing more than photo ops -- I think we're in a big pickle in Iraq.

The president, frankly -- I was disgusted when I read in the New York Times yesterday that 80 percent of the torso injuries and fatalities in the Marine Corps could have been prevented if the Pentagon, the secretary of defense and the president had supplied them with armor that they already had.

They requested that from the field; the Pentagon refused. You know, I, two years ago, thought Secretary Rumsfeld ought to resign. He ought to resign.

These people are not qualified. They haven't served themselves; they don't know what it takes. They ought to protect our troops. Our troops are doing a hell of a job and they deserve better leadership in Washington than what they're getting.

I was incensed when I saw that story, 80 percent of the torso- based wounds that led to fatalities in the Marine Corps -- surely our Marines are worth something more than that.

BLITZER: About a month ago, Senator Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee spoke out, urging his fellow Democrats, including yourself, to restrain themselves in criticizing the president's position on Iraq. Listen to what Lieberman said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander-in-chief for three more critical years, and that, in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think? Is that advice good advice from Senator Lieberman?

DEAN: No. This president has lacked credibility almost from the day he took office because of the way he took office.

He's not reached out to other people. He's shown he's willing to abuse his power. He's not consulted others. And he's not interested in consulting any others.

And I think, frankly, that Joe is absolutely wrong, that it is incumbent on every American who is patriotic and cares about their country to stand up for what's right and not go along with the president, who is leading us in a wrong direction.

We're going in the wrong direction, economically, at home; we're going in the wrong direction abroad.

Look at what's happening in Latin America. This president, while saying that he wants to further democracy and capitalism, is driving people in the opposite direction.

We need real leadership in this country and we don't have it right now.

BLITZER: Are you blaming the president on the elections in Bolivia or on the elections in Venezuela? Is that what you're saying?

DEAN: We had an enormous opportunity, when this president took office, and he said he was going to reach out to Latin America. Instead, he has turned them off. He's been high-handed with them; he's rejected them.

He's ignored the economic plight of their folks. And so, we're getting something that I think most Americans wish we didn't have, which is left-leading regimes in these places. We need a president who will work constructively and cooperatively with our allies around the world so that we really can move capitalism and democracy further into the world and not turn off people. When you turn people off, as the most powerful nation in the world, they are obviously going to do something that is not in our best interest. And that's exactly what's going on right now.

BLITZER: Getting back to the war in Iraq, you were highly quoted when you suggested -- I guess it must be about a month or so ago, that the war was really not winnable any longer. Later you clarified your remarks.

But in the aftermath of the elections, which seem to have been pretty smoothly run -- lots of violence still unfolding in Iraq -- there are plenty of people that say it's still winnable if certain things take place.

Where do you stand on the winnability, if there is such a word, of the war in Iraq?

DEAN: Wolf, I laid out a strategy that I thought would make the war on terror winnable. We need to win the war on terror. We have to protect ourselves. The question is, do we have the kind of leadership in Washington that's going to allow that?

There is a plan put together by Lawrence Corb and a fellow by the name of Bruce Cotulis, who -- Lawrence Cord was in the Reagan administration. It's a plan that I think makes a great deal of sense. It's a moderate plan, calls for strategic redeployment of our troops. While we're removing them from Iraq, we're keeping some in the region to fight the terrorism that the president's invasion of Iraq has spawned in Iraq.

That's a sensible plan for defending America. Right now we have a lot of happy talk. We have some, frankly, folks who aren't treating our troops properly, not arming them and equipping them properly. That doesn't give me confidence about the leadership in this White House.

BLITZER: Should Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff, who has now pleaded guilty to bribery charges, among other charges, a Republican lobbyist in Washington, should the Democrat who took money from him give that money to charity or give it back?

DEAN: There are no Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff, not one, not one single Democrat. Every person named in this scandal is a Republican. Every person under investigation is a Republican. Every person indicted is a Republican. This is a Republican finance scandal. There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money. And we've looked through all of those FEC reports to make sure that's true.

BLITZER: But through various Abramoff-related organizations and outfits, a bunch of Democrats did take money that presumably originated with Jack Abramoff.

DEAN: That's not true either. There's no evidence for that either. There is no evidence...

BLITZER: What about Senator Byron Dorgan?

DEAN: Senator Byron Dorgan and some others took money from Indian tribes. They're not agents of Jack Abramoff. There's no evidence that I've seen that Jack Abramoff directed any contributions to Democrats. I know the Republican National Committee would like to get the Democrats involved in this. They're scared. They should be scared. They haven't told the truth. They have misled the American people. And now it appears they're stealing from Indian tribes. The Democrats are not involved in this.

BLITZER: Unfortunately Mr. Chairman, we got to leave it right there.

Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, always speaking out bluntly, candidly.

Appreciate your joining us on "Late Edition."

DEAN: Thanks, Wolf. Safe flight back.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And up next, we'll have the results of our Web question of the week: How will Israel's changing leadership affect the Middle East peace process?

Our special "Late Edition" will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our "Late Edition" Web question of the week asked: How will Israel's changing leadership affect the Middle East peace process? Here's how you voted: Fifteen percent of you said it would help. Fifty percent said it would hinder. Thirty-five percent said no change at all. Remember, though, this is not a scientific poll.

Let's take a closer look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines back in the United States.

U.S. News and World Report has, "The end of an Ariel Sharon era."

Newsweek magazine asks, "What now for Israel?"

And Time magazine features lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "the man who bought Washington."

And that's your "Late Edition" for this Sunday, January 8th. Please stay with CNN throughout the day for continuing coverage of the events here in Israel and beyond.

And please be sure to join me next Sunday and every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. eastern for "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

Tomorrow at noon eastern, I'll be back in Washington to anchor our "Situation Room" special coverage of the Samuel Alito Supreme Court hearings. Our coverage begins at noon eastern.

Until then, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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