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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

War in the Middle East

Aired July 23, 2006 - 11:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's 11:00 a.m. in Washington, 8:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 6:00 p.m. in Jerusalem and Beirut, 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 be covering every angle of the Middle East crisis with live reports and analysis on the region's developments, plus I'll speak live with a senior adviser to the Lebanese prime minister in just a few minutes.

First, though, let's go to CNN's Fredricka Whitfield for a quick check of what's in the news right now. Fred?

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred.

CNN has reporters stationed all over the Middle East, covering this crisis. Let's go live to the region right now. CNN's John Roberts is standing by in northern Israel.

John, there's word the Israelis may, repeat, may be ready for NATO peacekeepers to come into South Lebanon. What are you hearing from your vantage point?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just before I explain that, let me tell you what you're looking at here. You're looking at members of an Israeli artillery unit putting fuses on artillery shells.

That means that they're getting ready to fire those. What they have been doing for the last 12 days, Wolf, is they have been firing that artillery into the southern part of Lebanon, helping the ground forces clear out Hezbollah forces.

What they're trying to do is, in a line, literally, from the Mediterranean, all the way over to the border with Syria, is get the Hezbollah fighters out, degrade their capability to wage war, so that, in the case that an international force is put together, it can come in there with very little resistance and keep Hezbollah out of the area to create a buffer zone.

This artillery unit goes day and night, has been going since July 12, when the cross-border conflict first started. And there's no question that people in this unit think that they are fighting a different kind of war. A little while ago, I spoke with Captain Doron Spielman about that idea.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAPT. DORON SPIELMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: This is different. This is a terrorist army. These guys are grouped like an army. Hezbollah is grouped like an army. They're funded like an army and they're trained like an army.

These are serious motives that are led by two leaders, Ahmadinejad in Iran and also Nasrallah, of course, in Lebanon, both of which are engaged in doing what they call wiping Israel off the map.

They've had six years to dig underground tunnels, to lay fortifications, to mine roads, to gather artillery. I, myself, have watched their artillery grow by a few thousands Katyusha every year.

We've been waiting. We knew that something was going to happen. The question was when.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So that's your story from the Israeli side, the Israeli defense force, about what they believe this war is all about.

Now, in addition to softening up the Lebanon side of the border for the Israeli ground troops, this unit is also tasked with responding to Hezbollah rocket fire.

And 88 Katyusha rockets, so far, have come across the border in Haifa, Nahariya, Carmeh (ph), Kriyat Shmona, the typical targets that Hezbollah has been going after.

Only two deaths today. Two of those deaths were in Haifa, one at a woodworking shop that was hit, another one the middle of the field. A poor fellow just happened to be out on the road in his car and the rocket landed right beside him and killed him. Wolf?

BLITZER: And very quickly, John, what about NATO?

There's word from the defense minister of Israel, Amir Peretz, that Israel might be open to NATO stepping in and filling that void in South Lebanon.

ROBERTS: What Israeli officials don't want to have happen, Wolf, is a repeat of the UNIFIL force -- that's the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, an interim force that was struck in 1978, which the Israeli leadership really believes is a toothless military. It can't do anything.

So they want to make sure that, if another force is going to go into South Lebanon, it's a force that can actually do something. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. We'll be checking back with you. John Roberts on the scene for us in northern Israel. From northern Israel, let's go to southern Lebanon right now, which, once again, was on the receiving end of a barrage of Israeli air strikes today.

The port city of Tyre, especially hard hit. That's where we find CNN's Karl Penhaul. He's joining us live with the latest details. Carl?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, throughout the day, Israeli war planes have been pounding positions, coastal positions just south of Tyre and also hills into the east of Tyre.

What we have also seen is a barrage of Hezbollah rockets going out here. We've also heard pounding, which some of the residents here say may be shells coming from Rav-2 (ph) field guns. Those are Iranian-made field guns that we know are operated by Hezbollah fighters.

Now, at one stage, we saw a battery of three Hezbollah rockets fire up into the sky and head off toward Israel. And about 10 minutes later, Israeli war planes everyone on the scene in the skies above and, also, a huge barrage of Israeli artillery shells came raining down on that area.

So, certainly, today some tit-for-tat fighting across this border, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Karl, as you take a look at the fighting in Tyre, in the area where you are -- and you've been there for the last several days -- does it appear to be getting more intense or easing up a bit?

PENHAUL: It really has been going around the clock for, certainly, the five days that we've been here. It doesn't really depend whether it's day or night; it just depends on when target are identified.

And constantly, in the air, even as we speak now, there are unmanned aerial drones looking for targets. And then once they've acquired those targets, then they will open fire.

There's certainly no sign of things getting better. And certainly, if you look at the civilian casualties, they will attest to that because they are seeming to bear the brunt of what's going on right now. Wolf?

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul, on the scene for us in Tyre. Karl, thanks very much.

Let's go to Beirut right now and get the Lebanese government's perspective on where things stand in this conflict.

We're joined by Mohamad Chatah. He's a senior adviser to the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora.

Thanks very much for coming on, Mr. Chatah. What about the Lebanese government's reaction to this notion, perhaps, that NATO should be deployed in South Lebanon to deal with the possible vacuum that could be created by Israel's destruction, at least, of a lot of Hezbollah's capabilities?

MOHAMAD CHATAH, ADVISER TO LEBANESE PRIME MINISTER FOUAD SINIORA: Frankly, Wolf, this is an important aspect of it, perhaps, but it's not at the center of the problem. Now, we have a tragic situation. We have an outrageous exchange of fire. The casualties are, by and large, civilians.

We have a war that will produce more extremists than it can exterminate. We need to end this. Beyond the ending of the war itself and the shells and the casualties, we need to work quickly, quickly on a framework, a politician solution to the underlying problems that have caused this war to begin.

And unless we have a clear solution to these problems and a political framework, a multinational force, whether NATO or a U.N. force, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

I mean, what -- you send troops to finish a war that Israel couldn't finish? We need to agree, quickly, on an end to this and a political solution that makes sense. And then a multinational support can provide a lot of assistance to our own armed forces.

BLITZER: As you know, Mr. Chatah, a quick solution would be the return of those Israeli soldiers and a stopping by Hezbollah of these rocket attacks on northern Israel. Is the Lebanese army ready to move in to south Lebanon and implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for, quote, "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias"?

CHATAH: Wolf, quick solution, it took Israel 12 days to reach where we are now. And there's no solution in sight. You cannot, simply by using force, to end the situation. We want to end it. We did not kidnap those two soldiers. We disavowed this action. We do not have as a government full control over the south. This is not a secret.

The south of Lebanon has been under one armed group or another for the last 35 years. We're saying this has got to change, once and for all. It's been a little over a year that this government took office and began rebuilding the state. This country was not a fully independent country for many, many years.

While we were beginning the process of asserting our statehood, our control, we now have a war unleashed on Lebanon, a war that's devastating our civilian population and making it very, very difficult for the state to do what it's supposed to do. We need to move quickly.

We know that the world wants to help us but it cannot help us simply by saying that we need a quick solution, a quick end to this and surrender our soldiers. We do not have the soldiers. We need quick action. But the quick action cannot come the way it is happening now.

BLITZER: As we look at these live pictures also, Mr. Chatah, coming in from Beirut, the aftermath of another apparent Israeli airstrike, what will be your government's message to the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? I assume she'll be meeting with representatives from Lebanon. Is that fair to say?

CHATAH: We have three messages. We need a quick cease-fire. This madness needs to stop immediately. At the same time and without delay, we need to deal with humanitarian situation. There's a tragedy here. The country has been cut into pieces, and the movement of supplies is almost impossible.

And third and also at the same time, we need to work urgently to finding a solution, and the solution is there. The Lebanese government has stated clearly that it has the authority and the will to exert its authority throughout the country. We want to go back to the armistice agreement of 1949 that provided security on both sides of the border for 20 years.

We also want to resolve once and for all the remaining issues on the border. Namely, the Shaba Farm area, and that doesn't have to linger on and on and on. And also the Lebanese detainees in Israel. We have three detainees, and that cannot be the source of such pain and killing on both sides. We have a framework that can work if the international community works with us, and if the United States takes the lead along with our other friends in the world and in the Arab region, and make this a solution once and for all.

We do not want to go back to a status quo or a new status quo with partial solutions that will provide maybe some security or some peace for a few days or a few weeks or a few months, then to go through something like this again. Lebanon cannot have another round.

BLITZER: Are there any meetings scheduled right now between Secretary Rice and representatives from your government, the government of Prime Minister Siniora?

CHATAH: I can not talk specifically about the scheduled meetings. But we are in constant contact with the U.S. and other countries, and we will be talking to the U.S. secretary of state and other leaders, and we will work hard in the coming days to find a solution, as I said before.

BLITZER: Would you welcome her coming into Beirut, security clearly provided, as other representatives of governments from Britain and France have done?

CHATAH: Well, we welcome all who can assist us in ending this war. And, yes, officials of the United States and Europe and others have a crucial role to play, and they have come before, and they are welcome to do it again.

BLITZER: Listen to what she said the other day on Friday, Condoleezza Rice, in rejecting any notion of an immediate cease-fire. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE OF THE UNITED STATES: If you simply look for a cease-fire that acknowledges and freezes the status quo ante, we will be back here in six months again, or in five months or in nine months or in a year trying to get another cease-fire because Hezbollah will have decided yet again to try and use southern Lebanon as a sanctuary to fire against Israel.

BLITZER: Well, you want to react to that statement she made?

CHATAH: Sure. I totally agree with the secretary that we do not want a status quo ante to return. We cannot afford what we had before because it led to what we see now. So, yes, a cease-fire alone is not enough. We need to at the same time work hard to achieve what I mentioned before.

But a cease-fire is important. We have families being torn. Eighty percent of the casualties in Lebanon are civilian, and I'm sure on the Israeli side also it's mostly civilian. And one-third, at least in Lebanon, one-third are children under 12, children that on a Sunday afternoon like this one should have been playing at the beach.

We cannot he can't say that a cease-fire should be postponed until we find a solution. Both should happen at the same time. Both are urgent. And we want both.

BLITZER: Mohamad Chatah, senior adviser to the prime minister of Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, I know these are difficult days. Thanks for spending a little time with us on "Late Edition." Appreciate it very much.

And coming up at the top of the hour, a separate view, a very different view, the Israeli view. The Israeli security cabinet member Isaac Herzog discusses the fallout from his country's military campaign against Hezbollah. That's coming up in our second hour.

But up next, with international demands for a cease-fire, is there a viable diplomatic option to this Middle East crisis. We'll speak with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.

And as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares to travel to the region, we'll talk with two leading U.S. senators about the U.S. role in trying to resolve the conflict. Much more of our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East" straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our web question of the week asks this: Should the United States take a more active diplomatic role in the Middle East conflict? Cast your vote at cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results at the end of the program.

Straight ahead, on this 12th straight day of warfare between Israel and Hezbollah, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, weighs in on the crisis. You're watching a special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICE: I know that there are no answers that are easy, nor are there any quick fixes. I fully expect that the diplomatic work for peace will be difficult. But President Bush and I are committed to that work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussing the Middle East crisis. And her upcoming trip to the region begins later today when she leaves Washington. Welcome back to our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

The crisis is topping the agenda at the United Nations. Just a short while ago, I spoke with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition." In the past couple hours, the Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, has suggested Israel would accept an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to deal with the Hezbollah threat, preferably, he said, one involving NATO. Is that something the U.S. would support?

JOHN BOLTON, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: Well, I think what we've been looking at is the possibility of an international force that will help accomplish the objectives of Security Council Resolution 1559, and that is to strengthen the institutions of the government of Lebanon to extend their control over the full territory of Lebanon. And Secretary Rice will be discussing a range of options as she leaves for the Middle East this evening, looking to a meeting in Rome on Wednesday.

So I think it's important that people are thinking about these different kinds of options. The NATO suggestion is new, but I think the fundamental principle we have to look at is strengthening Lebanese armed forces and the democratic government of Lebanon generally.

BLITZER: Is the NATO option, at least from the Bush administration's perspective, on the table?

BOLTON: Well, I think, as I say, it's a new idea. We'll certainly take it seriously. I think we have been looking carefully at the possibility of a multinational force perhaps authorized by the security council, but not a U.N.-helmeted force. That might be analogous to the multinational force and observers in the Sinai between Egypt and Israel.

I think we all need to be creative, but we need to keep the idea of the force within the larger, long-term political solution that Secretary Rice is seeking.

BLITZER: The NATO involvement in Afghanistan comes to mind. NATO's involvement in Kosovo comes to mind. U.S. troops would be involved in those -- are involved in those NATO operations. If NATO gets involved in Lebanon, do you believe U.S. forces would participate, or would they be simply European and Canadian forces?

BOLTON: Well, we haven't discussed the possibility of U.S. boots on the ground in Lebanon, but I think that we want to be open-minded on what's doable here. The main point being to see that Hezbollah does not return to its armed militant capacity, threatening Israel, and that the institutions of the government of Lebanon cover the whole country. I think you want to avoid a situation where a multinational force takes over responsibility that really we ought to be encouraging and assisting the government of Lebanon to take up.

BLITZER: Well, at least in the short term, the Lebanese army apparently doesn't have the capability to take on Hezbollah in the south. I think a lot of people agree on that.

I'm going to move on, but a quick follow-up. A lot of us remember what happened when Ronald Reagan, then president, sent U.S. Marines on a well-intentioned peacekeeping mission into Lebanon in 1983: 241 U.S. service members wound up being killed. The suggestion is Hezbollah then launched that truck bombing outside of Beirut at the U.S. Marine barracks that killed those American troops.

At this stage in general, though, is the U.S. open to redeploying American troops into Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission?

BOLTON: Well, as I said a moment ago, we have not contemplated the notion of American troops actually in Lebanon for that kind of mission. I, too, remember vividly the deaths of the Marines in 1983, and I think in terms of how to deal with Hezbollah, it's actually Israel that's defanging it right now.

BLITZER: Here is what Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, said on Friday on "Larry King Live." Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: Whether we like it or not, we have to engage those two governments if we're going to find a longer-term solution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He was referring to Syria and Iran, which the U.S. sees as behind Hezbollah's move and Hamas' moves in Gaza, for that matter. Is it wise right now, as Condoleezza Rice prepares to head off to the region, for the United States to start engaging Syria and Iran directly?

BOLTON: Well, I don't think that's appropriate at the moment. I think what we need Syria and Iran to do is stop supporting and financing terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. You know, good estimates say that Iran supplies Hezbollah roughly $100 million a year, and it was either Iran or Syria that supplied Hezbollah with the Chinese-built C-802 anti-ship cruise missile that hit that Israeli ship a few days ago. Hezbollah has aspirations to be a political party in Lebanon, but political parties normally don't have anti-ship cruise missiles. Iran and Syria could contribute a lot if they'd stay out of the internal affairs in Lebanon and let that new democracy flourish.

BLITZER: You probably saw the story in The New York Times today suggesting the top Bush administration officials want to wean Syria away from Iran right now, and is enlisting the help of the some of the more moderate Arab states, like the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis, to get the Syrians to cooperate. Is that story basically accurate?

BOLTON: Well, I think the Iranians and the Syrians have engaged in an extensive amount of cooperation in recent weeks and months, which has been very troubling, particularly when you see that they're both not only state sponsors of terrorism, but look at Iran's determined effort, over decades, really, to acquire nuclear weapons.

Whether Syria and Iran can be separated is a good question, but I think in immediate terms, what we want is for them to cut off their supplies of assistance to Hezbollah, and really comply with Security Council Resolution 1559, which is designed to end this external dominance over the affairs of Lebanon. If they'd just comply with the resolutions that are already out there, that would be a step forward.

BLITZER: I want to play another excerpt of what Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, said on Thursday before the U.N. Security Council. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: While Hezbollah's actions are deplorable and, as I've said, Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Has Israel engaged in excessive use of force?

BOLTON: I don't think it has. And I think it's important that we not fall into the trap of moral equivalency here.

What Hezbollah has done is kidnap Israeli soldiers and rain rockets and mortar shells on innocent Israeli civilians. What Israel has done in response is act in self-defense. And I don't quite know what the argument about proportionate force means here.

Was Israel entitled only to kidnap two Hezbollah operatives and fire a couple of rockets aimlessly into Lebanon?

The situation is that Israel has lived under the terrorist threat of Hezbollah for years, and these most recent attacks have given it the legitimate right, the same right America would have if we were attacked, to deal with the problem. And that's what they're doing.

BLITZER: Well, the criticism, including from some of the European allies, is that it's one thing to go after Hezbollah. It's another thing to effectively destroy so much of Lebanon's infrastructure and, in the process wind, up killing civilians.

BOLTON: Well, let me make two points. First, we have urged the government of Israel to exercise the utmost care in the conduct of its military operations, to avoid innocent Lebanese civilians and to avoid damage to the democratic government of Lebanon. And I think Israel, being a responsible democratic state itself, is trying to carry that out.

But second, we've had some important developments at the end of the week in terms of the establishment of humanitarian corridors into Lebanon to allow the distribution of humanitarian supplies to the civilians there. The government of Israel very quickly accepted the request made by the U.N. Secretariat to do that. The United States has been working both behind the scenes diplomatically and operationally in New York and in Washington to help make that happen.

I think that's a very important development, to make sure that, even as hostilities continue, that the innocent civilians in Lebanon are provided for.

BLITZER: The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, suggests that Israeli officials, top Israeli leaders, could be charged with war crimes by doing what they're doing. Listen to this excerpt of what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOUISE ARBOUR, UNHCR: It's pretty apparent that the number, the scale of civilian casualties in this conflict raises very serious questions about breaches of the laws and customs of war in a way, not only that is a breach of international humanitarian law but that could engage international criminal law and could engage personal criminal responsibility, all the way up the chain of command.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You want to respond to what her implication is?

BOLTON: You know, in America, prosecutors are not supposed to threaten people in public based on press reports. I would just say as one lawyer to another, to Mrs. Arbour, that she should consider her professional ethics and responsibilities very carefully here before threatening criminal charges based on press accounts.

BLITZER: One final question, because we're almost out of time -- maybe another question after this one -- the British minister of state, Kim Howells, yesterday was very critical of the U.S. position right now. I want you to listen to what he said. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIM HOWELLS, BRITISH MINISTER OF STATE: I very much hope that the Americans understand what's happening to Lebanon. These have not been surgical strikes. And it's very, very difficult, I think, to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used.

You know, if they're chasing Hezbollah, you go for Hezbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation. And that's the difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is there a serious rift developing now, a difference between the Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, when it comes to Israel's response to the Hezbollah kidnapping? BOLTON: I don't think so. I think President Bush has been in direct touch with Prime Minister Blair on several occasions, beginning at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit.

Secretary Rice has been in touch with her counterpart. We're working very closely with the British delegation here in New York.

So there may be individual comments here and there. That even happens in the American government from time to time. But I think we're working very closely with the United Kingdom on this matter.

BLITZER: So you think this British minister is speaking out of turn?

BOLTON: I think I'll leave it at what I said before. I think the president and the prime minister are working very, very closely together.

BLITZER: One final question, and this is the final question, it looks like they're going to try once again to get you confirmed by the U.S. Senate, maybe even in the coming days and weeks. George Voinovich, the Republican senator from Ohio, now says he's going to support you.

How does it look?

BOLTON: Well, I'm very grateful to Senator Voinovich. You know, he and I worked closely over the past year. He called me after President Bush appointed me in August of last year and said, look, I know I opposed your nomination, but U.N. reform means a lot to me and I want to work with you.

I know that must have been a hard call for Senator Voinovich to make, but I thought, well, if he's willing to make ahead, so am I. And we've talked extensively. I've met with him. He's been up to New York on the question of U.N. reform, which is so important.

So I'm grateful for his decision. I think it changes the political dynamic in a major way. And we'll just see what happens in the next few days.

BLITZER: The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Thanks very much for coming in.

BOLTON: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: And, coming up, given the mounting death and destruction, is peace possible in the current conflict? Two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Richard Lugar, the chairman, Democrat, Chris Dodd. They're standing by to weigh in.

You're looking at these live pictures of the skyline of Beirut. We'll be going back to the Lebanese capital, as well as to Haifa in northern Israel. Much more of our special coverage coming up.

Also coming up, what's in the news right now, including the latest on a very, very violent day in Iraq.

And don't forget, for our north American viewers at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, John Roberts hosts "This Week at War," live from northern Israel. That's right after "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Syria today signaled it might be ready to talk directly with the U.S. to try to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. CNN's Hala Gorani is in Damascus. She's joining us now live with the latest on that front. Hala, what are they saying where you are?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have heard reports that the deputy foreign minister has said he would be interested in direct talks with the United States. There's been no official confirmation of this yet. But what we do have officially confirmed is a statement by the information minister of Syria, who said if there is an Israeli ground invasion, then potentially Israeli soldiers could be within 20 kilometers or 12 or 13 miles of Damascus.

And that would be considered a threat to Syrian national security and that Syria would therefore not sit back and take it. Now this is interesting for two reasons. First of all, because it's a departure from what we've heard in the past. What we've heard in the past is that if Syria is directly attacked, then Syria would respond. That's what we heard from Syrian officials over the last nine or ten days or so.

So on the eve of the Condoleezza Rice visit to the region, it's interesting to see. But the question is, is this political rhetoric, because frankly, on the map there is no Lebanese point that's 12 miles from the Syrian capital. It is a lot more than that. It's about 40 or 50 kilometers which is about 25 miles. So the question is, is it political rhetoric in order to get the U.S.'s attention as Condoleezza Rice travels to the region?

BLITZER: Hala Gorani, thanks very much. We'll come back to you throughout our program. Joining us now with their take on the Middle East crisis and what it means for U.S. policy in the region, two guests, the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and one of the committee's key Democrats, Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Senators, thanks very much for joining us. Senator Lugar, let me start with you. You studied this issue for years and years. Is it time for the U.S. to start high-level talks with Syria right now, talks that were suspended in the aftermath of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year? Is it time for a direct high-level dialogue with Damascus?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: Well, such a dialogue might be useful, but given the sequence of events, now Secretary Rice is going to Rome. She's going to visit with countries in the Middle East who surprisingly perhaps for some did not accept the idea of Hezbollah's attack on Israel as a good idea. As a matter of fact, they rejected that thought, and they're going to visit together.

Now that may lead to negotiations involving Syria and a lot of nations, and even Syria and the United States. But I don't want to jump ahead. I think in an overall picture, I believe that we probably should have talks with Syria on a regular basis. Seems to me that Syria is the conduit for influence coming through Hezbollah to attack Israel and therefore to attempt to make life difficult for the United States in the area.

BLITZER: Senator Dodd, there are some analysts who believe that if the U.S. were to do that, establish that high-level direct dialogue with Syria, Syria perhaps could be weaned away from its alliance with Iran.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, I think that's very important. And I'd underscore what Senator Lugar has just said here. I think the idea over the last number of years that we haven't had any conversations with the Syrians has contributed to this in no small measure.

John McLaughlin, who was the deputy director of the CIA under both President Clinton and President Bush, has a very, very good piece in this morning's Washington Post. And I'd urge my colleagues and others to read it, read it carefully. And he makes the point that you have to negotiate with people, a superpower does, with -- and sit down and talk with people you don't particularly like.

And this sort of juvenile attitude that we're not going to talk to people we disagree with, I think has contributed in no small measure to the problems we're facing today. He secondly recognizes that process matters, that you've got to have a place where people can come when matters like this emerge. To go 12 days and have the secretary of state say what would do I or what would I say if I were to engage in diplomacy in the region, it was rather startling to me that a secretary of state would make such a statement.

BLITZER: The other headline coming out today, Senator Lugar, is that the Israeli defense minister, Amir Paretz, suggesting that an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, something more robust than UNIFIL, which goes out of business at the end of this month, the old U.N. peacekeeping force, is something Israel would accept, preferably, he said, NATO. NATO involvement. Would you think that's a good idea for the United States to see NATO get directly involved in Lebanon?

LUGAR: Well, certainly there are countries involved in NATO that may be involved in Lebanon very successfully. I'm not certain as people have talked about this multinational force that's going to separate Hezbollah from Israel, which countries are being nominated, but certainly the nomination by Israelis of NATO is as good as any.

BLITZER: But what about U.S. troops? Because if NATO goes in, presumably the U.S. would go in, as well, and there's a history back to 1983 when 241 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, were killed in what is seen as a Hezbollah truck bombing of the barracks outside Beirut.

LUGAR: It would not a good idea for the United States troops to be in Lebanon. I don't say that in a qualified way. I just say this categorically. We're going to have troops there, I believe of one country or another, but not the United States of America. We are extended in the area.

The Hezbollah action, in my judgment, is a direct activity of Iran attempting to allay the negotiations at the United Nations on their nuclear program or to support Hamas in its fight with Israel. The United States, at least on the ground, has no place in that particular situation.

BLITZER: Senator Dodd, what do you think?

DODD: I think Dick Lugar has it exactly right. I was in Lebanon in 1983 with Carl Levin of Michigan, and we remember those very clearly. There were warnings then that this would be a huge mistake to have U.S. forces on the ground in Lebanon. But let me add, as well, here if I can, Wolf, beyond what Dick Lugar has said here, clearly a peacekeeping force has some ability to protect Israel from the kind of attacks that occurred here.

And Israel is exactly right, in my view, to respond to the attack last week. Having said that, I also believe they probably went farther than they had to go here. And a good friend -- and we are good friends of Israel -- needs to remind its friends from time to time when they overreach. And I think it's very important at this juncture that President Bush organize nations to talk about an economic relief package for Lebanon.

It was only 3 1/2 months ago that the prime minister of Lebanon was given a red-carpet reception in Washington. It seems to me at this juncture a lot of innocent Lebanese are suffering terribly here, and we need to offer them some relief from this kind of problem.

And lastly, I would just say you cannot outsource your diplomacy here. We have too many issues that we have to resolve that involve the United States and other nations within the region and beyond that.

It appears to many people that we're outsourcing our diplomacy in the Middle East. That is dangerous for us, in my view.

BLITZER: Do I hear you correctly, Senator Dodd, when you say that the Israelis have overreacted to the threat that they feel? DODD: I think going as far as they have, in this case here, is going further than they should have, in my view.

I think going after Hezbollah in the South, clearly warranted without question whatsoever. But it seems to me, here, just going beyond that here is doing exactly what the Iranians want here.

You're now radicalizing Lebanon, a population that, I think, was far more moderate prior to all of this. You're radicalizing elements in Jordan and Egypt.

If you had free elections in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon today, the Islamic Jihad, the Muslim Brotherhood would win overwhelmingly in those countries. That is dangerous for Israel, in my view, and the United States.

BLITZER: Did Israel overreact, Senator Lugar?

LUGAR: I think they've been careful. They said they're not going to massively attack Hezbollah by sending ground troops in there. They have made some attacks on specific towns and villages to clean out, it appears.

The dilemma is that Hezbollah has so integrated all of its missiles and its forces within the civilian population that it is impossible to attack Hezbollah without hitting civilians.

And that's the dilemma that has been well known for a long time. But it seems to me that the Israelis, in calling for this multinational force, recognize that they want that protective force and they want someone else helping the Lebanese government to get on its feet and to run its own country.

And in this respect, I'd take Chris Dodd's idea of our support for Lebanon and its democracy, building something that could, in fact, take on, within Lebanon, the Hezbollah group, is very constructive.

BLITZER: There was a report, Senator Dodd, as you know, saying that the Israelis have asked and the U.S. agreed to accelerate shipment of some precision-guided munitions to Israel. The New York times reporting on Saturday, writing this: "The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration. Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that can be compared to Iran's efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah."

It a good idea for the U.S. to be sending new bombs to Israel on an accelerated basis right now?

DODD: My reaction, at least initially, would be yes. I mean, I think they need the help. Clearly -- look, they have been attack by missiles and rockets coming out of Gaza and, clearly, coming out of southern Lebanon.

As I said earlier, I totally support Israel's right to respond to those challenges. Any self-respecting nation would, here. Now, I wonder what kind of weapons are we talking about?

Clearly, the appropriate committees of Congress should look into it. But the idea that we're not going to support and supply Israel with what it needs to defend itself is something that I would not be supportive of. I'm supportive of giving them what they need at this juncture.

BLITZER: We only have 10 seconds, Senator Dodd. Will you support the confirmation of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton?

DODD: No, this is going to be a bruising fight. I regret this. I'm sorry the administration wants to go forward with this. The problems still persist. There's a strong piece today -- many ambassadors at the U.N. feel that he hasn't done a good job there. He's has polarized the situation.

Number two, the NSA wiretap transcripts are still an issue.

And thirdly, he still tried to fire two intelligence analysts. In my view, I don't care what the administration or what party, if a high official does that, you don't deserve to be confirmed for a high post, in my view.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there. I know, Senator Lugar will support the confirmation.

DODD: I know that. I know that.

BLITZER: Senator Dodd, thanks. Senator Lugar, thanks to you as well.

Much more of our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East" coming up. We'll go live to the region.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: These are live pictures of Haifa in Israel. Once again, the sirens are wailing. That means incoming rockets expected, Israeli authorities using those sirens to get people to go underground to their bunkers.

Once again, right now, Haifa apparently under attack by Hezbollah rockets. We're watching the situation live. We'll go there live shortly.

Also, these are live pictures. You are seeing the skyline of Beirut where there recently were some more Israeli air strikes. We're covering that as well. To Haifa and Beirut, right after this. Much more ahead on our special "Late Edition," including insight into Israel's strategic planning. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is a special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNKNOWN: Hezbollah and Nasrallah are threats to the region. Not only to Israel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: War in the Middle East rages on for the 12th straight day. What's next? We'll talk to a top Israeli cabinet minister, Isaac Herzog. Plus, perspective from the two leading members of the House intelligence committee, Republican Peter Hoekstra and Democrat Jane Harman. Both now in Jerusalem.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICE: The extremists of Hezbollah have put that government at risk and have brought misery to the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Understanding a defiant Hezbollah. We'll get insight from an expert, former CIA station chief in the Middle East, Gary Berntsen.

Welcome back. Also coming up, my live interview with the prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora. We'll be speaking with the prime minister momentarily. Also with the Israeli security cabinet minister Isaac Herzog. First, though, let's go to CNN's Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN Center for a quick check of what's in the news right now. Fred?

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Fred. And joining us on the phone now from Beirut live is the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Mr. Prime Minister, thanks very much. I know these are hectic days for you.

FOUAD SINIORA, LEBANESE PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.

BLITZER: First of all, your reaction to this proposal for a beefed-up multinational peacekeeping presence in south Lebanon. According to the Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, one preferably involving NATO. Is this a good idea for your country?

SINIORA: Well, I think it's very early to talk about this matter. One has to really find out how that really fits into an overall proposal to find a solution. I mean, we are trying to suggest something that doesn't really serve the purpose. Let me put it this way. Let's try to really look into the real issues. The real issue is that truly there are two soldiers that have been abducted by Hezbollah, but there are other, a number of Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons.

And the most important issue is the very fact that there is the Shebaa Farms, which is something occupied by Israel. And definitely, ultimately, we need to have the Lebanese government and the states of Lebanon to prevail over all the Lebanese territory and to be at the same time able to have a restored monopoly of weapons in the country. These are the issues that we should really tackle.

BLITZER: Well will you be raising these issues? Will you be talking about these issues directly with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who's heading to the region later today?

SINIORA: Yes, I mean, these are the issues. We have been talking with Secretary Rice and with other leaders of the friendly countries and all the peace-loving nations is that we want peace in terms of the Lebanon. We want, really, an immediate cease-fire, and we have to step in as a Lebanese government to handle these issues.

Again, within a perspective of an overall solution for the problem. Rather than looking at things and picking a few matters and trying to deal with them. So the matter that has to do with an international peacekeeping force, whether, I mean, still, I mean, it is in the realm of just ideas that are being presented. There is nothing yet concrete in terms of the proposal. But the matter that I believe if it is going to be considered, then it has to be under the flag of the United Nations.

BLITZER: What about the fears in Israel of all of these rockets coming in, potentially even longer-range ones going beyond Haifa to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Who's going to make sure that Hezbollah is disarmed as a militia, disbanded, which of course was the responsibility of the Lebanese government since U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 was passed six years ago?

SINIORA: Yeah, well, Wolf, I think the way how to really deal with this issue, the very fact, the presence of long-range missiles and so on, the way is to really go directly into the crux of the problem. What is the problem? The problem is the occupied territory in the Shebaa Farms.

And once we really address the issue, then everything else will start to really get the solution for it. I strongly believe that the Lebanese government should really prevail over all of the Lebanese territory, and there shouldn't be any weapons in Lebanon other than in the hands of the Lebanese government.

BLITZER: But can you do that? Can the Lebanese army go into south Lebanon and take charge and effectively disarm Hezbollah?

SINIORA: Yes. But, I mean, this is within the perspective that we are addressing the issue of the occupied territory. As long as the Shebaa Farms is still occupied, then it becomes really impossible to really deal with these issues. I'm really talking with Secretary Rice and have been, really talked with, within the same time, with President Bush before and with other leaders in all of the countries that are showing real impetus this matter is that it is high time that we address this issue.

It is not possible anymore for us and for the world to go to the status quo ante, before the 12th of July. I think what happened is a big crime. Israel has committed serious crimes against humanity. One, it really has attacked Lebanon and killed so many people. You know, one-third of the dead people in Lebanon are children below the age of 12. These are all civilian people.

They did not really try -- they said that they want to break the neck of Hezbollah. In fact, they are breaking the neck of the Lebanese. They are putting the whole country to its knees. They have been fragmenting the country piece by piece by destroying all the bridges in Lebanon.

I'm saying that it is high time that we take this as an opportunity, despite all of these major losses, which we are holding Israel accountable, I think we should really address the issue directly, try to really resolve the matters so that ultimately Lebanon can go back to the armistice of 1949. And by this, Israel can have safe borders.

BLITZER: We're almost out of time, Prime Minister. But on that issue of the Shebaa Farms, which is a sensitive issue -- it's a small little area between Israel and Lebanon and Syria -- the Syrians in the past, as well as the United Nations, have said this is occupied Syrian territory, not occupied Lebanese territory. Question: Do you have a commitment from the government in Damascus that now acknowledges that this is Lebanon, Lebanese territory, not Syrian territory?

SINIORA: Well, it has been said and everybody knows that it has been really said by the president, Bashar Assad, and by the foreign minister in so many occasions, they have said it very clearly that Shebaa Farms is a Lebanese territory, and they have been -- they should be taken to their word. So this is the real Lebanese territory.

And in fact, this is a problem. We should not really leave things to really, to affect -- we have quite, let's say, an issue. If left unattended or unanswered, then this is going to really create further problems, further destruction, further killing, and with no end, you see.

This is what I'm saying. It is high time that we should all concentrate our efforts on finding a permanent solution that really creates a safe border there for Israel within the context of the armistice of 1949, and at the same time can solve all the issues for Lebanon.

And that is the most important thing for Israel, for the international community as well, is the fact that there won't be any more weapons in Lebanon, other than the weapons of the legitimate authority, which is the Lebanese army.

BLITZER: One final question, Prime Minister: Will you be meeting with Condoleezza Rice personally on this current visit she's undertaking to the region?

SINIORA: Well, I think she's coming to the region. I haven't been advised yet about whether she's coming to Lebanon and when she's coming to Lebanon.

But, definitely, if and when she comes to Lebanon, definitely, I will be meeting with her.

BLITZER: Fouad Siniora is the prime minister of Lebanon. Thank you very much for joining us.

SINIORA: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, sir. These are very, very trying times for all of the people of Lebanon.

Just ahead, we'll get a different perspective. I'll talk about Israel's strategy in dealing with Hezbollah with the Israeli security cabinet member, Isaac Herzog. He's in Jerusalem.

Our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking at these pictures we just got in. You see a trail coming in of an Israeli attack, apparently, on Beirut. This is Beirut. And you see the smoke coming up, a missile coming in, an Israeli missile going after a target there. And you see the aftermath from that.

Welcome back to our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East." The Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz now says he government may be open to a NATO peacekeeping presence in Lebanon.

Just a short while ago, I spoke with a key member of Israel's security cabinet, Isaac Herzog, about his country's next steps.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Minister Herzog, thanks very much for joining us from Jerusalem.

We're getting word that the Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, is now suggesting Israel would be open to some sort of international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, preferably one led by NATO.

What is the latest position of the Israeli government on a NATO involvement in Lebanon?

ISAAC HERZOG, ISRAELI TOURISM MINISTER: We don't rule out any practical suggestion, provided that a solution enables effectiveness and coerciveness; namely, that whichever force assumes responsibility over the southern Lebanese border has to be an effective force.

It has to be a force that can encounter insurgents and radical forces such as the Hezbollah, and make sure that the U.N. Security Council resolution is fully implemented.

BLITZER: Have you, the Israeli government, been discussing the NATO options with U.S. officials and others? HERZOG: Well, I'm not sure that it's so developed. I guess these ideas are floated on the table. We're all looking forward to the secretary of state's visit, tomorrow, to Israel. We are happy to negotiate, even, with the Lebanese government. We don't have any rivalry with Lebanon, and we don't have a conflict on territorial issues with Lebanon.

What we want is an effective force. What we want is an effective government.

From day one, the prime minister has said we would like to see the Lebanese army assume sovereignty in southern Lebanon. But knowing that it's a weak army, and knowing that the Hezbollah, aided by Iran and Syria will try to do anything to tilt the situation, the solution has to be, I guess, much more beefed up.

BLITZER: Is it fair to assume that Israeli troops will remain on the ground in those positions it's taking, and will take, in southern Lebanon until some sort of beefed-up international force is ready to replace it?

HERZOG: Not necessarily, but let's put it this way. We are carrying out operations in southern Lebanon by way of an infantry and forces, ground forces, in order to uproot and dismantle the incredible Hezbollah infrastructure in those areas.

You know, we found incredible bunkers, incredible security operations around each and every fortress that they've built there, that even the most modern armies don't have.

Show me another terrorist gang that holds Scud missiles, or missiles similar to Scud, and you'll understand that, as we heard today in the Israeli government, according to intelligence sources, the Iranian government has spent over $100 million a year in supplying and financing the Hezbollah.

BLITZER: If the Hezbollah has these longer-range rockets or even missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv, and maybe even Jerusalem, why haven't they used them?

HERZOG: First of all, as you know, we've hit a lot of them. They were probably supplied to the Hezbollah's strategic weapons, both to threaten Israel as well as to help the Iranians, as it is assumed here by various experts to help the Iranians if there is a conflict with Iran or if there is a, I would say, a Western conflict with Iran pertaining to the nuclear program. These are all assumptions of experts.

But what we know is like that, that Mr. Nasrallah and his gang have been supplied an enormous amount of ammunition. And we don't rule out the fact that he may want to attack still other parts of Israel. But what we know is that we have neutralized a major, major part of his strategic capability.

BLITZER: Here's what he said on Thursday to al-Jazeera, Hassan Nasrallah. He said the Israelis are unable, up until this moment, to do anything to harm us. And I assure you of that. Hezbollah has stood fast and absorbed the strike, and now is going to initiate and will deliver surprises that it promises.

He keeps making reference to surprises. I take it your government, your military, your intelligence service, takes that very seriously when he talks about surprises.

What do you think he's alluding to?

HERZOG: First of all, Mr. Hassan Nasrallah is known to use psychological tactics throughout his endeavors with Israel in the region. He clearly has aspirations to become one of the leaders of the fundamentalist Muslim front that we are confronting here.

And he's playing with us, with television, with message boxes and with all sort of ideas that lurk through this psychology of the masses. Nonetheless, of course, we take very seriously all his comments and we work to make sure that they will not be capable to carry out his instructions.

Incidentally, when we arrested a couple of Palestinian activists, yesterday, in Nablus, we were told that they were fully briefed and prepared and aided by Hezbollah people a few months ago.

BLITZER: Do you believe that he has other capabilities beyond these longer-range rockets, maybe even missiles, specifically referring to chemical or gas warfare?

HERZOG: We're unaware of that, necessarily. And that's the way things look right now. And nonetheless, we ought to know that, in recent days, he's got convoys with supplies from Syria.

That's why we've made sure to dismantle and ruin infrastructure that helps him bring over these supplies from Syria.

But as to your question, the answer, right now, seems to be negative.

BLITZER: All right. Here's what Kofi Annan said the other day. I want you to listen to what he said, speaking on Thursday before the U.N. Security Council.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: What is most urgently needed is an immediate cessation of hostilities, for three vital reasons: first, to prevent further loss of innocent life and the infliction of further suffering; second, to allow full humanitarian access to those in need; and third, to give diplomacy a chance to work out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What about that? Why not have an immediate cease-fire, at least stop the killing for the time being?

HERZOG: First of all, for a cease-fire, you need two to tango. And clearly, on the Hezbollah side, there's no cease-fire at all. Yesterday, they shelled 150 missiles to northern Israel. And today, again, we had a barrage of missiles, killing two people and wounding many dozens.

So I don't see it's really realistic. And I must say, in addition to that, that stopping now would be a grave mistake. We need to uproot that infrastructure.

We need to make sure that the pattern of behavior whereby a hoodlum, a thug, heading a terrorist organization so dangerous, will not be able to repeat this pattern of behavior of kidnapping, abducting, attacking, sending insurgents and violating U.N. Security Council resolutions.

So I fully concur with the sympathy of the secretary-general. Unfortunately, to the best of my recollection, the U.N. force in southern Lebanon was totally inept with its capabilities of stopping the Hezbollah from building this incredible infrastructure there.

And that's why we are taking this responsibility, right now, on ourselves.

BLITZER: The criticism coming in against Israel from many quarters is that your reaction has been excessive, that it's one thing to go after Hezbollah and its military capabilities; it's another thing to effectively destroy much of Lebanon's infrastructure and to kill many civilians in the process.

And that criticism, perhaps, reached a crescendo, this week, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, who said this. Listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOUISE ARBOUR, U.N. HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: It's pretty apparent that the number, the scale of civilian casualties in this conflict raise very serious questions about breaches of the laws and customs of war, in a way not only that is a breach of international humanitarian law but that could engage international criminal law and could engage personal criminal responsibility, all the way up the chain of command.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As you know, she's a Canadian. She's clearly implying that some Israeli leaders could be charged with war crimes if this continues.

What do you want to say in response to that very serious allegation on her part?

HERZOG: First of all, it's a valid question. And we have very strong replies.

Number one, as you know, in modern warfare, unfortunately, you're seeing here a state, a modern liberalized democratic state confronting a terrorist organization, which operates from within civilian communities and which doesn't have any rules to abide by, whereby people are sleeping with the missile launchers and the missiles themselves in the living room.

Now, we advise these civilians that they ought to move out in order to dismantle that infrastructure. And I must say and remind the distinguished commissioner that, only yesterday, a million Israelis were in shelters and in security zones or moved out of their homes to other parts of Israel because they were bombed by, already, 2,000 missiles all over the country in all civilian premises.

Secondly, I must say, of course, that we are very, very sorry for the tragic loss of life. We really, really care. And we've instructed the military to be as cautious as possible, and if they have any doubt, to refrain from carrying out any operations.

Unfortunately, we see stories whereby when we even want to help the civilians and give them medical treatment, the Hezbollah, by way of violence, is preventing them from doing so. So the situation is much more complex than that.

And thirdly, and most importantly, under international law, the proportionality is judged by the threat. And the threat, here, as you mentioned in the beginning, is quite extraordinary. It's missiles to the center of Israel and it's missiles over all of the northern part of Israel.

BLITZER: One final question: Has this military operation against Hezbollah proven to be more difficult than your experts originally thought?

HERZOG: Our experts have advised us when we were in the cabinet that the Israeli homefront will be attacked, that the Israeli homefront will confront, in the northern part of Israel, a falling of many missiles and many, many mortars and shells.

We knew that it's a fierce battle because we are dealing with an organization which doesn't operate as a regular army but as terrorist gangs that are spread in little quarters all over the country, with incredible infrastructure, with enormous ammunition.

We are progressing as planned. And our intention is, of course, to neutralize the capability of this organization, to restore order to Lebanon -- imagine how Lebanon would look like without this terrible organization just hijacking it -- and of course, to return the two hostage soldiers back home, sound and safe.

BLITZER: Minister Herzog, thanks very much for joining us.

HERZOG: Thank you very much, indeed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And coming up, the two top of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, the chairman, Peter Hoekstra and Jane Harmon, the ranking Democrat. They're leading a congressional delegation in Israel right now. We'll speak to them from Jerusalem.

Up next, though, a quick check of what's in the news right now, including a very, very violent day in Iraq that has already claimed dozens of casualties. Stay with us.

(NEWSBREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. A U.S. Congressional delegation is in the Middle East right now, in part to express support for Israel in its fight against Hezbollah.

Leading the group are the House intelligence committee's two top members, Republican Chairman Peter Hoekstra and Democrat Jane Harman. They joined us from Jerusalem just a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Chairman Hoekstra, Congressman Harman, thanks to both of you for joining us from Jerusalem. Mr. Chairman, let me start with you. What have you learned from the Israelis about their mission in south Lebanon right now?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA (R), MICHIGAN: Well, I think what we've learned is that the Israelis are seeing pretty much the same thing that the international community is. And that is, every time that there is progress in the region -- in this case, in Lebanon, where you've got a duly elected government that is making progress -- Hezbollah has destabilized the area and the region and that government by attacking Israel.

Israel's objectives are clear: Drive Hezbollah out of south Lebanon, make sure that the rockets and their weaponry is eliminated, and then provide an environment for an international force to come in and stabilize the environment and make sure that Hezbollah cannot be resupplied.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Harman, is that mission proving to be a lot more difficult than Israeli officials thought it would be?

REP. JANE HARMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: Oh, I think the Israelis are very clear-eyed about this, Wolf. First of all, they say and Prime Minister Olmert said this to us this morning, that they are not at war with the Lebanese people. They're not at war with the Lebanese government. What they are fighting is a proxy for Iran and Syria, which is like a cancer in the south of Lebanon.

And if they don't degrade this threat and if they don't degrade the Hamas threat in Gaza -- both of these places are places where they have withdrawn; they are not occupiers in these areas -- if they don't degrade these threats, they'll just get stronger. And Israel and the entire neighborhood will continue to be at risk. And I think they're trying to minimize casualties in every way that they can, based on the conversations we've had.

BLITZER: You and the chairman were up in the northern part of Israel, taking a closer look, firsthand. What was your immediate impression of what you saw?

HARMAN: Well, it's clearly an enormous threat to the north of Israel to be on the receiving end of these rockets and missiles. We drove through ghost towns, including the city of Haifa, where 300,000 people are living.

We heard the sirens blaring. There are a million people in the north of Israel in shelters. That means they can't go to work, and they're living underground. We saw one of those shelters with a mother and her two children in one of the kibbutz along the border.

They're being enormously brave about this. And many of them have chosen to remain north, although some of them are coming south. But bottom line here is, this is a fight Israel was not looking for.

These rockets are coming over in the hundreds. The capability of these weapons is enormous. They've been supplied by Iran through Syria to highly trained Hezbollah terrorists in south Lebanon.

The Iranian advisers may actually be there, too, although that's not proof. But some of these missiles are capable, so the Israelis think, of hitting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as the north cities.

This is a huge threat. These weapons -- I agree with Peter Hoekstra -- have to be destroyed, if possible. And what the Israelis tell us is that a number of the civilians in the south of Lebanon have been aiding and abetting Hezbollah.

Their efforts are to target only the military installations and only the capability of Hezbollah, but there is civilian damage because some of these civilians, according to the Israelis, have been cooperating and hiding these weapons.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, I know you and Congresswoman Harman have been briefed by top Israeli officials, including the prime minister.

Why haven't the Hezbollah used these longer-range rockets, and potentially missiles, to go into Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem, where you are right now, if they have them?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think Hezbollah already recognizes that perhaps they miscalculated. You know, for six years, since 2000, when the Israelis pulled out of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has been preparing for this day.

Maybe not right now, but they've been, you know, they've been stockpiling these arms, they've been burying them into the ground in southern Lebanon, and they've been preparing for Israel to strike back. But I don't think that they were anticipating this strong of a response from Israel right now, because, really, for the last number of years, Israel has been very, very patient as they have been threatened. And finally, with the kidnapping, the abduction of the couple of soldiers, you know, almost two weeks ago, Israel recognized that they had to come back and deter the activities of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, because the threat was getting to be too great. Hezbollah, I think, right now is very, nervous. I'm not sure that they're ready to escalate it. We think they've got those capabilities, but they're not ready to cross that line at this point.

BLITZER: Well, Mr. Chairman, let me press you on that point. Is it based only on Israeli intelligence, or is there separate U.S. intelligence? And you're the chairman of the intelligence committee. You're briefed by top U.S. intelligence officials. Does the U.S. believe that Hezbollah has rockets or missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem?

HOEKSTRA: Well, Wolf, I can't give you an answer on that directly. I mean, one of the reasons that the speaker asked the intelligence committee to come over here on a bipartisan basis and be the first representatives of Congress to visit the region since the crisis evolved was to exactly ask the kinds of questions that you're asking, but to get a verification and identification of the capabilities from both the Israeli intelligence and from U.S. intelligence. That's exactly what we're doing here over these couple of days.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Harman, you're a good Democrat. Do you have any problems so far in these first 12 days as to how the Bush administration is handling this crisis?

HARMAN: Well, the Bush response is playing out as we're talking to you. The secretary of state arrives in the region tonight. She will be in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday. I think that it is the right thing to do to give this some time. I don't think an immediate cease-fire makes any sense.

That will send a message to both terrorist organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah, that they can regroup and that they will have time to continue their terrorist activities. I think the right answer for the moment is for Israel is to drain the swamp, to fight hard -- the whole country understands the stakes, and the whole country's invested in this -- to make sure that these terrorist organizations stop threatening Israel.

And hopefully that there is a better chance for this democratically elected government in Lebanon to succeed. And for Mahmoud Abbas, the president, the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, to become the peace partner that Israel has been yearning for, and to be the head of a democratic Palestine.

BLITZER: Chairman Hoekstra, we're almost out of time. But how worried should Americans be right now, either abroad or in the United States, that Hezbollah or other groups sympathetic to Hezbollah might launch terrorist strikes against U.S. targets?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think, Wolf, again, when these terrorist organizations make claims or make threats, it is important that America takes them seriously. You know, in the past, those threats have sometimes been ignored. That is a mistake.

We are learning much more about the characteristics of these terrorist organizations, what they're trying to do in the region, and like I said when we started, every time there is progress in the region or on a global basis, these terrorist organizations try to change the dynamics. The way they do that is by striking out and introducing additional violence into the equation.

I think we've got to be very, very aware. We need to be very, very cautious as we move forward, because the threat is real.

BLITZER: Peter Hoekstra and Jane Harman, thanks very much. I know you guys got a hectic trip over there. We'll stay in close touch. Appreciate you joining us.

HOEKSTRA: Thank you.

HARMAN: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And this is just coming into CNN from Israel army radio, reporting that the former prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a stroke in early January, Israeli army radio reporting that his condition has now deteriorated. Unclear precisely what that means.

We're watching this story. We'll get more information as it becomes available, but Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel, has been in a coma since early January, according to Israel army radio, his condition has clearly deteriorated. We'll watch this story for you.

Still ahead, inside Hezbollah, is the group a bigger terrorist threat than al-Qaida? We'll get some special insight from a former top CIA officer. And don't forget this. For our North American viewers, at 1 p.m. Eastern, John Roberts has a CNN special report, "This Week at War," that airs right after "Late Edition" at the top of the hour.

Our special "Late Edition: Crisis in the Middle East" continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And we're getting more information on the condition of the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. A statement released by the hospital where he remains in a coma, has been in a coma since early January, doctors at the Tel Hashomer hospital saying that he's suffering from an accumulation of fluids in his body and problems with the functioning of his kidneys.

According to the Reuters news agency, a hospital statement says this: "Over the past two days, the doctors have identified a deterioration in the kidney function and changes in brain tissue." It goes on to say that doctors are continuing tests in order to diagnose the changes which have taken place in Sharon's body and to administer the appropriate treatment. The statement adds that his family is with him right now. We'll continue to watch this story for you.

Does Hezbollah pose the biggest challenge in the war on terror, at least right now? Joining us from New York with some perspective on what makes Hezbollah tick is former CIA Hezbollah chief Gary Berntsen. He's also president of the Berntsen Group, a global security company, and a well-known author.

Welcome back to "Late Edition," Gary. How big of a threat to Americans, whether in the United States or outside of the United States, is Hezbollah right now?

GARY BERNTSEN, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Well, I think people need to understand that after 1996 and the Khobar Towers attack, which was done by Iran, Saudi Hezbollah and Lebanese Hezbollah, the U.S. government recognized Hezbollah was a threat, and the CIA and the FBI worked together. CIA worked globally to diminish cells, those terrorist cells. And the FBI worked in the states to do the same thing.

Now, a lot of progress was made. And there was good coordination and cooperation on that. But Hezbollah, because it has a revenue stream from Iran, presents a significant threat. It can reconstitute some of those cells.

BLITZER: And do you fear that Hezbollah might do something apparently it's never done, at least until now, attack Americans inside the United States?

BERNTSEN: I think that it's more likely that Hezbollah would attack in places where it already has infrastructure. Those places would be places with significant Shia populations like the Persian Gulf, and they have over years, you know, recruited people like in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in the Emirates and Kuwait. Those are the places more likely, where they have the local versions of Hezbollah.

They would lash, you know, the Lebanese Hezbollah up to them, and the Iranians would be involved, as well. Make no mistake. That's more likely than something in the U.S.

BLITZER: Listen to one top Israeli general said on Friday about the Israeli operation. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIG. GEN. IDO NESHUSHTEN, IDF GENERAL COMMAND: We are aiming to cripple Hezbollah in order to enable the Lebanese government to take charge and fulfill its responsibilities, deploy its forces alongside the border line, bring back our soldiers and eventually cause the dismantling of Hezbollah.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Based on what you know, and you've studying this Hezbollah operation for a long, long time, is that realistic that Israel militarily can cripple Hezbollah?

BERNTSEN: Well, I think that they can significantly degrade Hezbollah's military wing, which is in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah's terrorist wing's a different animal, and it's, you know, based out of Beirut, and it's got bodies out around the world. And it has infrastructure around the world which it can call on when it wants to do terrorist attacks.

So, and what we've tried to do is diminish some of that, the U.S. has, but the Israelis are not going to destroy Hezbollah with this.

BERNTSEN: Hezbollah is part of the fabric of Lebanon. And it's going to be difficult.

BLITZER: Explain to our viewers the connection between Hezbollah and the governments of Syria and Iran.

BERNTSEN: The Iranian government is the primary supporter, or state sponsor. And it has trained Lebanese Hezbollah and the other Hezbollahs around the Persian Gulf, brought them back, trained them, given them money and actually put them together and, at times, had them function in joint operations.

So Iran is the big player. Frequently, terrorists -- when they did Khobar Towers -- they flew from Saudi Arabia, eastern Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Hezbollah members.

The Iranian embassy in Damascus drove them in diplomatic-plated vehicles into the Bekaa Valley. They all trained together. And then Lebanese Hezbollah, the Saudi Hezbollahs and the Iranians drove and moved the vehicles from Lebanon down to Saudi Arabia and ultimately did the attacks.

So you can see the logistics that they do is they work together quite closely.

BLITZER: Who is Imad Mugniyah? Because he's on the FBI's "most wanted" list.

He's seen as the leader of Hezbollah and accused by many U.S. experts as being the man responsible for the truck bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut and the U.S. embassy annex as well.

BERNTSEN: Right. Imad Mugniyah is the leader of what we call the IJO, the Islamic Jihad Organization. That's the terrorist wing of Hezbollah.

And he is, of course, the person that did the Marine Corps barracks bombing, blew up the embassies, and actually, in 1992 and 1994, was in charge of blowing up the Israeli embassy and the Amiya (ph) building in Argentina.

And, actually, Judge Galliano (ph), the famous judge from Argentina, found him guilty in absentia for those attacks.

So Mugniyah is the force within their terrorist apparatus. It's a family business. His brother-in-law, Moustapha Badreddin, blew up the U.S. embassy in Kuwait.

BLITZER: So why has it been so hard -- I assume U.S. authorities have him on the most wanted list to find this guy. Where do you think he is?

BERNTSEN: Well, he stays, you know, within those areas which are very difficult to get at. He stays in the Hezbollah areas of Lebanon and he spends a lot of time in Iran. He works with the Iranians. The Iranians are owners, of a sense, of Hezbollah and, almost, owners of the terrorist wing. It's a proxy force for Iran.

BLITZER: Let me read to you from Hassan Nasrallah's interview on al-Jazeera on Thursday: "I assure you today that Hezbollah is holding steadfast. We'll deliver the surprises that we promised. And there are also new surprises that we'll keep to ourselves for the next phase."

Do you have any idea what he's talking about when he talks about new surprises?

BERNTSEN: Well, of course, you know, they're going to use some bluster in this. And they're trying to use this to intimidate "the West," "the world" -- the free world.

But you have to recognize that Hezbollah has had many years to organize. They are a very, very professional organization. They use very good tradecraft when they do attacks.

So, even though there's been a lot of work done against them, it doesn't mean that they can't have success in conducting terrorists acts. They're dangerous.

BLITZER: Gary Berntsen, thanks very much for joining us.

BERNTSEN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll continue to talk to you down the road.

This program reminder for our North American viewers, right at the top of the hour, John Roberts hosts "This Week at War." He's live in northern Israel. That comes up in a few minutes. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our "Late Edition Web question asked, "Should the United States take a more active diplomatic role in the Middle East conflict?"

Here's how you voted. Sixty-eight percent of you said yes; 32 percent of you said no. Remember, though, this is not a scientific poll.

And that's your "Late Edition" for this Sunday, July 23. Please stay tuned to CNN for continuing coverage of the crisis in the Middle East. I'll be in "The Situation Room" tomorrow from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, back at 7:00 p.m. for another hour.

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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