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Israel Launches Major Offensive in Gaza; At Least 16 Killed in Israeli Airstrikes; Gaza Hit by Israeli Air Strikes; Crisis at the Border; Obama Grapples with Immigration Crisis; Protesters in Murrieta Celebrate Victory; Obama's Initial Request for Emergency Fund to Deal with Crisis Doubled; David Gergen Analyzing White House's Response to Immigration Crisis

Aired July 8, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, air strikes on Gaza, rocket attacks on Israel, could another ground incursion be far behind? We'll have a live report.

Also right now, tensions are high on the border. Now the president is nearly doubling the amount of aid he's requesting to help solve the immigration crisis. Will Congress go for it? We'll have a live report.

And right now, the New Jersey senator at the center of a federal corruption probe is claiming he is trapped in the Cuban intelligence smear plot. CNN has an exclusive interview with Senator Robert Menendez.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We begin with the Middle East on the brink of war. Overnight, Israel launched a major offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip, calling it operation protective edge. A wave of Israeli air strikes hit some 50 targets, including what they described as militant houses.

Rockets are also coming in from the other direction. Since Monday night, dozens of rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel. Now Israel says it has at least 40,000 reserve troops on standby for duty in the Israeli military.

President Obama is weighing in on all of this as well. He wrote an opinion piece for an Israeli newspaper, a piece written before the escalation of tensions. In it, the president emphasized that peace is possible between Israelis and Palestinians and that, quote, "peace is necessary because it's the only way to ensure a secure and democratic future for the Jewish state of Israel."

Any peace process may now be, though, in tatters, as the Israelis and the Palestinians appear to be at a tipping point for a war.

Let's go to CNN's Diana Magnay. She's near the Gaza strip in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Diana, Israel's defense minister says this offensive will, quote, "probably not end within several days." So, how are people preparing for an extended military campaign by the Israelis? What's it like where you are? DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, people are very scared. All

day, Wolf, there have been the sirens sounding here in Ashkelon. We were in Starod (ph). In Starod, which is a city a little further south from here, you have 15 seconds to get to a shelter when you hear that siren before a rocket comes in. And even the bus shelters, the schools are all reinforced concrete to protect people. Here in Ashkelon you have 30 seconds.

So, not very much time if the rockets are coming in. And there are a lot coming in. Israel defense forces say something like 130 fired out of Gaza today. And they have struck 150 targets, they say, inside Gaza, targeting Hamas operatives there, they say in precision strikes. But there have also been civilian casualties, including two children killed in those raids today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we've just been told, within the past hour or so, Diana, that air raid sirens have actually gone off in Tel Aviv, that some rockets were launched, or at least one rocket launched, from Gaza towards Tel Aviv. Apparently, Israel's iron dome system caught that rocket but people were scrambling in Tel Aviv. All of this is putting a lot of pressure on the Israeli government. They've now mobilized 40,000 reservists to be on standby. How close is this to another all- out confrontation?

MAGNAY: Well, it certainly feelings as though it's getting that way. It's not on the level yet of November 2012 or at ends 2008-2009. But it has all the indications it feels as though it's getting that way. As you say, a rocket was intercepted in the town of Rishon LeZion, just south of Tel Aviv, just about an hour ago, by the iron dome system. And this is the big fear.

To date, the ITF has been saying we know Hamas has long-range missiles that are capable of reaching Tel Aviv and beyond, but they haven't been using them yet. But Hamas has threatened that it will start to use them. And it's only really about 100 missiles in its huge arsenal of around 10,000 that could reach that far, but it has threatened that it will begin using those missiles if the Israeli air strikes continue. And that interception over Tel Aviv is an indication that they're making good on their word -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Diana Magnay is Ashkelon, Israel for us, not far from Gaza. Diana, stay safe over there. We'll be in constant touch with you.

The Israeli air strikes have been taking their toll. Our Ben Wedeman has been following some of the aftermath. He's inside Gaza.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're on a rooftop in Honyunis (ph) in the southern Gaza strip where at 3:00 in the afternoon, the residents of what remains off of this house received a phone call. They were told to get out of the house immediately.

Shortly thereafter, according to eye witnesses, a drone flew overhead and dropped some sort of projectile as sort of a final warning for people to leave the area. But what happened was that instead of leaving the area, people came and gathered in the area. Some of the neighbors suggesting they were acting as a human shield, people on the roof, people in the street below. And then, an F-16 came and apparently fired at least one missile into that house.

Now, I spoke to one young man who came to the rescue. He said that he dug several people out of the rubble but there were a total of seven people dead. Among them, two young boys ages 10 to 11.

Now, we don't know who exactly was the target of the Israeli strike. But the people in this area point out that regardless, if there's one person in the area, there are hundreds. Gaza strip is one of the most crowded places on earth. And therefore, it's almost inevitable, if you fire a missile into an area like this, there will be innocent victims.

Now, there was another strike in Gaza city where an Israeli aircraft targeted a car carrying five men, killing all five of them. One of them was Mohammad Shaban, who is the head of Hamas' naval forces. It seems that, at the moment, Israel's tactic is to target the homes of people affiliated with Hamas but Hamas is not relenting in its missile strikes on to Israel.

This morning, we spoke to an Israeli military official who said they believe Hamas has as many as 10,000 rockets. So, there are many more rockets to fly and, no doubt, there will be many Israeli air strikes in return. I'm Ben Wedeman, CNN, reporting from Honyunis in the southern Gaza strip.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: So, is there anything that can actually defuse this tense situation? I'm joined by Fawas Gerges, he's a professor at the London School of Economics, has written several books on the region, including "Obama and the Middle East." He's joining us from London, as I said.

So, Fawaz, thanks very much for joining us. What do you think, can anyone bring a cease-fire about? The Egyptians succeeded a couple of years ago. As you well remember, there were suggestions maybe Qatar, maybe others. I suspect maybe the Palestinian authority of Mahmoud Abbas might have a shot of doing something. But, realistically, are we on the brink of war or can it be avoided?

FAWAZ GERGES, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Well, the irony, Wolf, is that neither camp wants all out confrontation. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians would like to engage in all-out war. Ironically, both camps have been engaged in the so-called gradual limited escalation. And this gradual escalation is spiraling out of control.

Prime Minister Netanyahu who is under tremendous pressure by the conservative wing of his administration to basically escalate and go into Gaza. And the Hamas, the Palestinian movement, Hamas, is also under pressure by its constituency and also public opinion to respond to the killing of its fighters and civilians. As you know, seven Palestinian civilians have been killed today. I think the most important task, to answer your question, is to bring about de- escalation because for both camps to climb down from the tree.

And I think Egypt is the most important player here, Wolf. Egypt is the only power that can mitigate between Hamas and Israel. And Egypt has been mitigating. You have the gradual escalation has reached now a tipping point, and this is where the United States and Egypt and the European community must work together to convince both camps because, really, it's lose-lose. This Israeli's do don't actually want to go to Gaza because this is a very dangerous operation. And Hamas does not want to engage in all out confrontation in Israel because it would be very costly. So, the challenge is for Egypt and the United States and the international community to come in before it's too late.

BLITZER: As you know, the U.S. doesn't speak with Hamas, the Egyptian relationship, under the new president, al-Sissi, that relationship, clearly, has deteriorated. At the same time, yesterday, I interviewed the PLO ambassador, the representative in Washington, Saeb Erekat, who said maybe the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, which does have relations with Israel, does have, obviously, a coalition partnership now with Hamas, maybe they could bring about some sort of cease-fire. Is that realistic, do you think?

GERGES: I think it is. And I think what we're talking about here, Wolf, is that President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptians and the Americans, they work with Egyptians, as you know, on security questions. There have never been any kind of disconnect between the Americans and the Egyptians. And the -- there is now a national unity government, as you know, between Hamas and the Palestinian authority. And that's why the Egyptians and the Americans can work directly and the Americans indirectly with Hamas.

A big point, Wolf, the current wave of violence and killings of both Israelis and Palestinians is a product of the breakdown of the peace talks initiated by the Obama administration. The reality is, if there is no -- if we don't tackle the root causes of this particular conflict, there will be another wave, a third wave and fourth wave, because the reality is you need to basically address the question of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. You need to address the question of a two-state solution. I can tell you about the Palestinians, Wolf, because I know a bit about the Palestinian perspective. There is a sense of hopelessness among the Palestinians. There is no light at the end of the tunnel of occupation. And the Palestinians were hoping that the unity government would bring about an American intervention in the peace process.

BLITZER: Well, the president of the United States wrote an op-ed article, an opinion piece, in "Haaretz," the Israeli newspaper today. Mahmoud Abbas wrote an article in "Haaretz" as well, as did Prince Turkey of Saudi Arabia, the former intelligence chief. I think it's significant the Saudi former intelligence chief writes an article that appears in an Israeli newspaper so maybe some cooler heads all around can prevail. Let's hope there is no escalation, although it looks dire right now.

Fawaz Gerges, as usual, thanks very much for joining us. We always appreciate your thoughts.

GERGES: Thanks.

BLITZER: Other news we're following here on CNN, including Senator Robert Menendez, he's claiming he's been the target of a plot by Cuban spies. Coming up, he speaks exclusively to our own Dana Bash.

And up next, crisis at the border. President Obama's asking Congress for nearly $4 billion to deal with the problem. We're going to break down the money. Why he needs it. He says, what's going on? Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Children by the 10s of thousands crossing into the United States illegally. Angry protesters chanting for them to go back home. And the Obama administration struggling to cope with a huge immigration crisis. Right now, here are the latest developments. Today, the president will ask Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to help deal with the problem. That's substantially more than he was expected to request.

Also, the president offered to meet directly with the Texas governor, Rick Perry, to discuss the influx of immigrant children. And Governor Perry has now accepted the invitation. The president still has no plans to visit the border when he travels to Texas tomorrow. And in Oklahoma, an Oklahoma lawmaker says he was blocked from visiting a detention center in his state where some of the children are being held. On CNN's "New Day," Congressman Jim Bridenstine explained why he wanted to visit the center.

REP. JIM BRIDENSTINE (R) OKLAHOMA: There is human suffering here. And as members of Congress, we have got to figure out why. The president is going to ask us for $2 billion. In order to solve the problem, we need to understand the problem. And certainly before we -- before we spend 2 billion taxpayer dollars, we certainly don't want to exacerbate the problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And as I said, that number has now gone up to $3.7 billion. That's what the president is seeking from congress emergency funding to deal with this immigration crisis. The crisis along the southern border is part of a bigger and bitter national debate over immigration policy. And a small California town is right now at the center of the battle. Angry residents there say they'll keep fighting plans to bring undocumented immigrants to that town for processing. CNN's Kyung Lah reports from Murrieta, California.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are some things we know. Buses not coming today.

CROWD (cheering)

KYANG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is what victory looks like, say protesters in Murrieta, California. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not in Murrieta. Not in Murrieta.

LAH: They are jubilant, because this charter plane from Texas filled with undocumented immigrants from Central America, most of them women and children went to Chula Vista, California, instead of Murrieta. The federal government is moving the migrants to southern California to cope with the crisis in Texas. An influx of undocumented immigrants has crammed facilities along the Texas border. A total of 60,000 to 80,000 children without parents are expected to cross illegally this year. The government's solution, fly and bus them elsewhere for processing.

CROWD: USA!

LAH: That didn't work last week in Murrieta. Protesters forced them to turn away from the Murrieta border patrol station. It's turned this normally quiet town into a battleground for the nation's immigration policy.

CROWD (chanting): USA! USA!

LAH: The buses may not have arrived this time, but immigration and customs enforcement says the migrants will keep on coming to southern California. Protesters promise the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As long as it takes is what it comes down to. We don't want to see any confrontations between us and government agencies or anything like that. But a lot of us here are willing to make a stand.

CROWD (cheering)

LAH: Kyung Lah, CNN, Murrieta, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We want to take a closer look at the Obama administration's efforts to deal with this huge immigration crisis. Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, the president now wants $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the crisis. Earlier, we thought it would be about $2 billion. So what happened in all of a sudden, it's nearly double what we originally thought he was going to request?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, all along, White House officials were quietly telling me and other reporters that to expect that dollar figure to be in excess of $2 billion. We didn't know how far an excess. And it turns out it's almost double than what the White House was initially signaling.

But let's run through where this money is going to go. It is interesting. A big bulk of this $3.7 billion, Wolf, $1.8 billion going for the care of these unaccompanied children. They need to be housed somewhere. They'll be detained for an indefinite period of time. White House officials could not say on a conference call with reporters earlier today just how long these children will be kept here in the U.S. before they're processed back out of the country because they don't really have legal standing. White House officials say to remain in the U.S. $1.1 billion for the transportation, the detention and removal of those children. And, of course, adult undocumented migrants who have been crossing the border in recent months. And then $433 million. It's not cheap to have additional border patrol agents on the border. And they'll be incurring overtime costs. So, almost $500 million there and then $64 million for new immigration judge teams and legal aid for these immigrants coming in. So that is a part of the process the White House really wants to get going right away, Wolf, that is to expedite and streamline the process to make sure those children and those undocumented immigrants are processed through the system, given every legal right under the U.S. immigration law, and then sent back to their country of origin. The president will be seeking additional legal authorities for the Department of Homeland Security to expedite that process as well.

And just a few moments ago, Wolf, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked during the briefing here whether or not there will be offsets for this budget request. Josh, and he said no, in emergency situations, that is not usually the case. And one final note, we should point out, President Obama and Rick Perry will be meeting in Dallas tomorrow. Rick Perry, the Texas governor, who has been criticizing the president recently, has accepted the president's offer to meet in Dallas to talk about the border crisis, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's no guarantee Congress is going to appropriate the nearly $4 billion, right?

ACOSTA: That's right.

No guarantee of that. There's a statement from House speaker John Boehner's office basically saying at this point that they're going to look at this request, but that the speaker at this point would prefer to send National Guard troops down to the border to beef up border security down there. The White House says that is not happening. They say what's in the supplemental request should be sufficient to deal with this crisis, but, of course, as they were acknowledging to us on the phone earlier this morning, Wolf, they just don't know how long this crisis is going to go on. It's starting to sound like the BP oil spill from four years ago. Officials just can't say when they're going to get it capped, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

Coming up, a powerful sitting U.S. senator, an anonymous tips there are under-aged prostitutes, now Cuban spies. The federal investigation is taking another dramatic turn. We have details.

And thousands and thousands of children crossing illegally into the U.S. Should the Obama administration have seen this coming? What should the president do now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The immigration crisis unfolding along the southern borders certainly has a lot of finger-pointing going on right here in Washington. President Obama and Democrats, they blame the Republicans for not passing comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans accuse the president of making the problem worst, no matter who's to blame, it's a crisis right now for the Obama administration. Let's bring in our senior political analyst David Gergen. He's been an adviser to four American presidents from both parties. He's joining us live. David, so what can the president do? What advice would you give the president right now to deal with this immigration crisis?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think he's done the right thing in proposing this $3.7 billion emergency supplement to try to stem the tide, provide more facilities, get these children turned around and back home. I think it's wise that he's meeting with Governor Perry of Texas. I would recommend if I were there that he also go to the border. I think it's important. I think it gives him a platform to make an international appeal to the nations of Central America, to the families there, keep their children home. It's too dangerous to send them here. A lot of them get exploited along the way. We're going to be sending them back. We'll try to help you economically to grow and have better prospects for your children. But I think take ownership of it, Wolf. And, you know, when you have an emergency, I think the president stepping forward taking ownership is a good thing.

BLITZER: Should the Obama administration, David, have seen this coming?

GERGEN: That's a good question. I think there were certainly a lot of signs of it. You know, we've been hearing about this for a long time just in the public press. And, of course, our intelligence folks knew. These children have been, after all, to get from Central America to Mexico, that's a long trek. They've been under way for a long time. We certain - I'm sure our intelligence people knew about this. So I'm surprised that suddenly it seems to be, you know, we're all surprised. I'm surprised that we're surprised. I'm surprised that the government in Washington is acting like they're surprised. It, once again, as one of these things, I think the more you can anticipate in the White House what's coming and get and prepare the public for it, it's easier to lead, it's easier to get public support for what you're trying to do. As I say, I think the president's trying to do the right thing here by stemming the tide and sending them -- these children home.

BLITZER: They passed comprehensive immigration reform bipartisan, in a bipartisan way in the Senate, but it collapsed in the House of Representatives. Republicans were opposed. They - a lot of them didn't like what they called amnesty, as you well know. The president says the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform certainly contributing to this current crisis. Is he right?

GERGEN: I think it has. And I think it's contributed to the sense that America is paralyzed, can't act, and I think this is weakening us in the Middle East. Another emergency that's on the president's desk. Any time that the president seems week at home, I think it weakens his standing overseas. And the other part of this, Wolf, is it's not just the failure of the bill, the fact is that we sometimes send a lot of people back and then suddenly we call it off and we say we're going to keep people here and there have been confusing signals. If you're a family in Central America, you think, maybe this is - maybe we've got a shot here, if we send our kids. And yeah, they're taking an awful chance with a 13-14-year-old child traveling alone. All sorts of things can happen and have happened to a lot of these poor kids. I mean, they're the pawns in all of this.

BLITZER: yeah, it's a heartbreaking story all around. All right, David, thanks very much. David Gergen helping us better appreciate the stakes, what's involved.

Coming up, Hillary Clinton, she's traveled from Baltimore to Berlin on her book tour. Has the effort paid off?

We are taking a closer look. And Senator Robert Menendez has been dogged by an ongoing federal investigation. Is his team using Cuban spies now as a new legal strategy? Stand by. New information coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)