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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Vladimir Putin Visits Cuba; LeBron James Returning to Cleveland; Fear in Israel; Cleveland Rocks Over LeBron Return; Putin Visits the Castro Brothers in Cuba

Aired July 11, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Lookie, lookie who is popping up in Cuba. Seriously, Vlad, why are you always up in our grill?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Israel now knocking down rockets on two fronts, calling up the reserves and raining fire on Gaza, where the death toll topped 100 today. What will be the tipping point for an Israeli ground invasion or for a cease-fire?

The sports lead. You can't go home again, Thomas Wolfe once wrote. But King James is sure going to try taking his talents from South Beach back to Cleveland. But will everyone welcome LeBron James back?

Also in world news, after taking back one strategic Cold War chip in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is right now visiting the Castro brothers. One presumes he's in Cuba for more than a little sun and rum. Is this part of his whole get-in-the-West's head campaign?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead, and right now millions living with the fear that a rocket or a missile could forever change their lives or take their lives. Israel now on alert from an attacking from two fronts after a rocket was fired from Lebanon today likely from the terror group Hezbollah, which is also tied up in that barbaric civil war in Syria.

It's not difficult to see how with just the slightest miscalculation or provocation, this could explode into a greater conflict. No one died in that attack from Lebanon or, for that matter, from the 100 rockets fired by Hamas militants in Gaza today, according to Israeli officials, 100 more since Monday. The body count on the Israeli side is zero, though one person was seriously injured when a rocket launched from Gaza hit a fuel tank near a gas station.

But the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have been punishing. There are no signs Israel will ease off any time soon. Health officials in Gaza are blaming Israeli airstrikes for at least 100 deaths, including dozens of women and children.

Our Ben Wedeman reports that a 4-year-old was among the victims of an Israeli bombing. When the sirens go off, the only thing moving faster than your feet might be your heart and we got a taste of what it's like living in Israel right now when our own Wolf Blitzer was forced to take cover from a Hamas rocket. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You can hear the sirens have just gone off. So, we're all being told to get to a shelter. So we're running in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Wolf Blitzer joins us now from Jerusalem.

Wolf, from your vantage point on the ground, how are things looking for this conflict? Is there any chance of a cease-fire?

BLITZER: It doesn't look like there is any time soon. I know that there are some efforts behind the scenes, but I haven't heard of any progress whatsoever.

I suspect it's going to get worse in the coming days. The Israelis are really threatening to not only continue their very punishing airstrikes, as you point out,but they're also massing thanks, armored personnel carriers, lots of troops on the border with Gaza. No one here would be surprised if they start moving in at some point.

That will really dramatically escalate what's going on. The fallout from that is certainly unpredictable, what happens as far as other fronts opening up from the north in Lebanon, for example. So it's a very, very tense situation right now. I suspect it's about to get worse.

TAPPER: A ground invasion, you're talking. What would that achieve, Wolf?

BLITZER: Well, the Israelis say they have no intention of reoccupying Gaza. As you know, They occupied Gaza until 2005. Then they withdrew. Hamas eventually took over. They were democratically elected in a Palestinian election and they took over.

What's going on now, obviously, is what's going on. What the Israelis would do with a ground invasion, at least according to what I'm hearing, is they would try to destroy as much of Hamas' arsenals, these rockets, the missiles, the weapons, that they have and then they would move out and presumably get a year or two breathing before they would once again be rearmed.

I don't think the Israelis have any inclination to try to reoccupy Gaza. Remember, this is a small, very small area with about 1.5 million Palestinians, if not more. There are a lot of questions, I must say, being asked right here in Israel. What would be the endgame be of an Israeli ground invasion? What would be the achievement, if any? And presumably a lot of Israeli troops would get killed in the process.

So it's a very difficult decision whether to send in those ground forces, a decision that the prime minister and his security cabinet in Jerusalem have to make. TAPPER: Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem, thanks. You will of course have

more on your special two-hour edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM" tonight at 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

Pointing fingers, assessing blame is easy. Finding a solution, that's difficult.

So let's bring in two experts who know the situations in the Middle East. Michele Dunne was a longtime Middle East specialist at the State Department. She's now a senior associate in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Hisham Melhem, who is the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya Television.

Michele, let me just start with you. Welcome to both of you.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today said -- quote -- "No international pressure will prevent us from striking the terrorists who are attacking us."

But, as you know, as even the Israelis concede, not everyone they're striking is a terrorist. Some of them are innocent victims. There were the individuals watching the World Cup. There's the 4-year-old and other children that we hear about all the time. Are Israelis really not feeling any heat internationally? Is the Obama administration putting any pressure on them?

MICHELE DUNNE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: Well, President Obama did telephone Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered to mediate.

I would say this isn't the first one of these limited wars between Hamas and Israel. There's been one almost every year for the last six years. Typically, they last about a week or so. Some of them have gone on longer, particularly when Israel went in on the ground.

So, unfortunately, we're still in an escalating phase of this. But at some point, there will be room for mediation. I'm not sure how much of a role the United States will actually play in that case, but there will be probably be escalating international condemnation. We saw some criticism even today from the U.N. envoy for human rights, saying that some of the attacks that Israel is carrying out could be considered crimes against humanity and so forth.

So I think Hamas will be probably -- as the Palestinian casualties escalate, they are escalating -- and certainly if Israel goes in on the ground, they will escalate very, very sharply. Then we will see international calls that there's got to be something done. Also, Israel at some point might even turn to the United States and say help us find a way out of this.

TAPPER: Find a way out.

Hisham, let's talk about the civilian casualties in Gaza right now. The Israelis say, as they always say, they're doing everything they can to target terrorists, militants and not hit innocent civilians. They say that the reason that innocents are dying is because of human shields and because Hamas embeds within the local population. What are you hearing from your sources on the ground there?

Why are so many civilians dying?

HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AL-ARABIYA TELEVISION: It's the most densely populated region in the whole world. That's one.

And this is the Israeli M.O. They have been saying this since they were attacking the PLO in Lebanon since the invasion in Lebanon in 1982. They are hiding behind human shields. Even if they want to hide behind human shields, you cannot because the area is full of people.

And so -- and the Israelis have been reckless when it comes to civilian casualties, whether against the Palestinians or the Lebanese and others. Now sometimes they are warning people, as if the Palestinians should be grateful that they are being warned to leave their homes so that their homes and their property will be destroyed and there will be this massive collective punishment that they have been subjected to.

The problem with this particular crisis now is that it's taking place at a time when the whole region from Basra in the east, to Beirut in the west, from Aleppo in the north, to Alexandria in the south, is sliding towards hell.

TAPPER: Yes.

MELHEM: And that's one of the reasons, by the way, that you don't see this Arab outcry, because the Arabs themselves are trying to put out fires in their own countries, and everybody is watching the World Cup, unfortunately.

And the Israelis found this moment very opportunistic to do so. But there will be a time when, as Michele said, with the mounting Palestinian casualties, the Israelis will find themselves doing again something that is really absurd. You visit Gaza with your airplanes and your tanks every year or 18 months. And every time you try to achieve something different.

And every time they are radicalizing the population further. And now the types of Hamas leadership that they are facing is probably more lethal to them than the types of leadership that they faced 15 and 20 years ago.

TAPPER: Michele, most Palestinians, like most Israelis, I'm sure, just want peace, just want to go about their lives. I don't know how well served they are by Hamas when they elected Hamas, but that is who they elected.

Is it possible that both the IDF and what Hisham said just now are correct, they are using human shields, they are embedded in the population, and the Israelis are not as careful as they claim to be and they are going after people within the most densely populated area in the world? Is it not possible that civilians are dying because both sides are to a degree at fault? DUNNE: Oh, yes, I think that's certainly the case and certainly

Gazans are not well served by Hamas. They haven't been well served by Hamas governance since 2007. And in fact if you look at public opinion polls, the popularity of Hamas within Gaza itself has fallen sharply.

Unfortunately, these engagements with Israel I think have a contradictory effect of bolstering the credibility of Hamas somehow.

TAPPER: And undermining the moderates.

DUNNE: That's right, that they're the only ones who are really standing up for Palestinians and fighting Israel and so forth.

That's right. They're the only ones fighting Israel and so forth. So the -- and I think Hamas's actions here have been very desperate, you know, I mean, that they almost have nothing left to lose here. They have been cut off economically. There's sort of an economic siege on Gaza. And especially since the coup in Egypt last year, the Egyptian side of the border has been very tight.

And so, you know, Hamas I think really doesn't have much to lose and I think they hope that, by fighting with Israel, they will actually become more popular and have more of a role.

TAPPER: We're running out of time, Hisham, but very quickly, what do the leaders of the Palestinians need to do to stop this on their side? Obviously, the Israelis need to stop it on their side, but on the Palestinian side.

MELHEM: I think the moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas should lean on Hamas too.

There is a sense of nihilism on the part of Hamas. And the poor Gazans are squeezed right now between a raucous Hamas and a merciless Israel. And in the end, we're going to end up with more casualties and no resolution. The Israelis are not going to find a military solution to the Palestinian problem.

And overall Palestinian problem boils down to single important issue, which is the occupation. And I think an occupation can only be maintained by a system of coercion. This is the reality that the Palestinians live under and this is the reality that the Israelis should understand at one point that they have to undo.

TAPPER: I also worry that just like the moderate Palestinians are being undermined, so are the moderate Israelis.

Hisham Melhem and Michele Dunne, thank you so much. We appreciate your time. Let's pray for peace in the region.

Coming up, he was called a coward and worse by his hometown team's owner after leaving, so how hard was it is for LeBron James to put aside those insults to play for him again?

Plus, he doesn't exactly seem like the type of guy who can take a joke, but did Kim Jong-un really have to go to the United Nations over a Hollywood comedy? Why he says the film is an act of terrorism -- coming up.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The sports lead now. The city of Cleveland, Ohio, it's had more rivers go on fire than sports championships in the past 40 years. I'm sorry. It's just a fact. Today, finally, they had something to cheer for and, boy, did they.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got LeBron James.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's the reaction to LeBron James announcing he was returning to his hometown, the Land of Cleve, and to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the franchise that took him as the number one overall pick in the draft back in 2003, believe it or not.

It's the kind of swerve you only see in pro wrestling or maybe "Star Wars"; the hero-turned-villain gets redemption.

LeBron announced his return home in a "Sports Illustrated" essay, no televised decision that will haunt him, saying, "I looked at other teams but I wasn't going to leave Miami except for anywhere but Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy."

So, LeBron is happy. But this guy, well, this guy right here you're looking at, he might be the saddest man in America today, a guy with a back-sized Miami Heat LeBron tat, with room for more rings.

Speaking of rings, we'll see if Cleveland is clearing just as loud in June as they are now.

CNN's Martin Savidge is live in Elysian (ph) Central today.

Martin, it looks like you and your team there are going to break out into the line dance from the beginning of the Drew Carrey Show. What's it like in Cleveland right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are at the center of euphoria when it comes to Cleveland, Ohio. I'm here with all my Cleveland friends.

(CHEERS)

SAVIDGE: On what we know is a wonderful, wonderful day.

Let me talk. I'm going to talk to a couple of you. Sir, look at you, head to toe Cavalier. I assume this has been in the

closet for a couple years but you brought it out now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I haven't missed a Cavs game in 11 years.

SAVIDGE: So, how does it feel now to have LeBron?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It feels like coming home. I left for a while and I came back home. It's about 360, full circle.

SAVIDGE: A lot of people say that too. By the way, Jake, I should say that sometimes Cleveland, we know you got to leave to realize you love it.

And what are you hoping now when he comes back?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm hoping for a championship ring and get some oomph in this business to be done. He got some oomph in this business and he can shape these young guys to a championship.

SAVIDGE: Young guys. The guy's a young guy himself.

But the thing is, what many of the fans really like, Jake, is the wait that will LeBron said it. It was about coming home. Pretty cool.

(CHANTING)

TAPPER: Martin Savidge in Cleveland -- thank you so much.

And joining us now to talk LeBron is the host of ESPN Cleveland's "The Really Big Show", Aaron Goldhammer.

Aaron, good to see you.

So, all's forgiven?

AARON GOLDHAMMER, ESPN CLEVELAND'S "THE REALLY BIG SHOW": Well, at this point, yes. I mean after reading that essay, Jake, you know, it was beautifully written. He said all the things in that essay today that we hoped he would say, but didn't say in 2010.

You know, it's been a wild ride for us covering LeBron over the course of the last 10 years. This is just another crazy turn. He goes from villain to hero in Cleveland in the span of one Internet post.

TAPPER: Explain to viewers who have not been to your lovely Land of Cleve what this exactly means for your city.

GOLDHAMMER: It's huge. You know, Cleveland is a city that, as you said in the come back from break, is the butt of jokes. Rivers on fire, and people who have never been here don't understand what a great place it really is and the wonderful people that are here.

I'm not originally from Cleveland but I moved here eight years ago in part to cover LeBron. I've grown to love it here and to consider now myself a Clevelander. It's all about the civic pride. You know? Our sports history is colored in things like the drive and the fumble and the shot and LeBron leaving, the Browns moving to Baltimore back in 1995.

This is finally a huge positive to put on our ledger. It's a huge day for civic pride. And I think it is hands down the greatest Cleveland sports day of the last 50 years.

TAPPER: And you covered LeBron when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then when he left, he became to -- for a while there the most hated athlete in America. Somehow, he turned it around -- somehow with his championships he turned it around. How is he as a person different than he was then?

GOLDHAMMER: You know, I think he's matured a lot. Oddly enough LeBron and I are close to the same age. I'm a few years older. Your priorities, what's going on in your life when you're 26 is much different than it is when you're 30. And so, you know, I think family and home and those things are a lot more important now than they were in his mid-20s.

I think he's grown up a lot. He's gotten married. He has a third kid on the way. And even though I don't cover him on a day to day like I did back in the early part of his career, you could feel that maturity ringing through the essay that was posted on SI.com earlier today.

TAPPER: The love not felt everywhere. We were just showing images of a mural that had been defaced in Miami.

I want to read from a letter written by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, killing LeBron for leaving four years ago. Might keep him from returning to Cleveland. Part of the letter said, quote, "I personally guarantee the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former King wins one. You can take it to the bank."

OK. Well, point LeBron, two points LeBron. Can these two coexist, though, at the Cavs?

GOLDHAMMER: I think they can. There was a report that just came out in the last hour that Dan and LeBron met face to face on Sunday in Miami. And there was a total airing of the grievances.

Obviously, Dan had a right to be upset at LeBron for the decision and everything that happened in 2010. LeBron had definitely a right to be upset at Dan. I mean, there are things written in that letter that seemed important to us in Cleveland in 2010 and now just appear ridiculous --

TAPPER: Right.

GOLDHAMMER: like the stretch that you just read. So I think that the two the can coexist because in this meeting, there was some real forgiveness and there was a real honest conversation, and I think it's a real lesson about not burning bridges in business but also that being open and honest with people who you have disagreements or issues with, that stuff can be overcome. I think LeBron and Dan, if it's not totally overcome at this point, they're on the road to overcoming it together.

Otherwise, I don't think you would see LeBron re-signing

TAPPER: A Festivus moment, the airing of grievances and now, they're back together.

Aaron Goldhammer, thank you so much.

Coming up next, I hear the cigars are great. I wouldn't know. But really, Puts, the Rusisan Russian president, showing up 90 miles off the coast of United States for some face time with the Castros. But is his real reason for the visit just to get under Obama's skin?

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In other world news, we've seen Russian President Vladimir Putin doing a lot of, let's say, unpredictable things -- riding a horse shirtless, hunting shirtless. Fighting children and judo people, not like a fist fight. And, of course, annexing Crimea from Ukraine and amassing troops at the border for a possible invasion.

Mr. Putin, I thought you couldn't do anything at this point that would surprise me. But then today, you showed up in Cuba to hang out with the Castro brothers.

So, has Vladimir Putin found some new comrades?

CNN's Patrick Oppmann joins us from Havana.

Patrick, what is Putin doing in Cuba, at least the official version?

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Vladimir Putin's message couldn't be clearer. Russia wants back into Cuba. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's economy has been in a basket case, Jake.

And part of the problem was Russia has been demanding for over 20 years now, that they pay them back to the tune of $30 billion. A lot of the assistance they received during the Cold War. You know, that's been a big problem, to say the least.

Now, that's all behind us because Russia has said as of last week that most of that debt is forgiven. They want stronger ties. They want to invest in Cuba.

They want to have economic relations with Cuba. They want to have a stronger military relations. There's even some talk about Russia wanting naval bases here again.

It's all shades of the Cuban missile crisis. A lot of this is probably just to get under U.S. officials' skin. But Vladimir Putin is meeting with Raul Castro and expected to meet with Fidel Castro. And we'll see how warmly they return his embrace today as the Russian president made some very strong overtures during his visit. TAPPER: Do the Cuban people welcome stronger ties with Russia after

things had dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union?

OPPMANN: You know, here's really -- the irony is the country that Cuba now wants most to have best relations with is the United States. Their number one priority is now the U.S. economic embargo lifted.

So, this doesn't really help. They have to walk a bit of a tight rope here. If they annoy the United States too much, it will dash efforts to try and improve relationships with Washington.

But the reality is, the economy here is in very dire straits. Cuba is really in no shape to turn downy friends whether they come from east or west, Jake.

TAPPER: Patrick Oppmann in Havana, Cuba, thank you so much.

In other dictator news, we told you about North Korea's displeasure with a Seth Rogen, James Franco movie coming out this fall where the CIA recruits them to kill Kim Jong-un.

Now, the ambassador for North Korea has delivered a letter to the U.N. formally complaining about the film. The ambassador writes, "The United States authorities should take immediate action and appropriate actions to ban of the production and distribution of the aforementioned film; otherwise, it will be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism." Terrorism, that is a harsh word for a Seth Rogen movie.

But I'm sorry, North Korea. If the U.S. had to stop production on every movie with a questionable plot, that would that Ian Ziering wouldn't be working? Are you not familiar with "Sharknado" and its well-awaited sequel "Sharknado 2"?

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

TAPPER: This country was built on the right to make movies about shark tornadoes.

Coming up next, just yesterday he was mocking Republicans. Now, it's his turn to be the butt of the joke. Republicans taking aim at the commander-in-chief for saying he wasn't interested in photo-ops -- your move, Mr. President.

Plus, John Walsh calls him a child-killing coward. The husband accused of killing his wife and two young daughters, and John Walsh' hunt to find him, coming up.

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