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Republican Candidates Clash in Miami as Trump Skips Third Debate; Questions Arise Over Control of Gaza as Israel-Hamas War Continues; Actors' Union Reaches Tentative Deal with Studios to End Months-Long Strike; Ivanka Trump Takes the Stand in New York Trial; Pandas Leaving National Zoo as China Pares Back on Loans. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired November 09, 2023 - 00:00   ET




ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks so much for joining us. I'm Anna Coren, live from Hong Kong, ahead on CNN Newsroom. The top 5 Republican presidential candidates come out swinging at each other and the front runner in their latest debate, but Donald Trump was a no-show again.

Questions continue to swirl over who will control Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war is over. And done deal, finally. Hollywood actors reach a tentative agreement with the major film and television studios to end their months-long strike.

We begin in Miami, where Republican presidential hopefuls gathered on Wednesday night for the third GOP debate. All of them are hoping to catch fire with voters just 2 months before the Iowa caucuses. But the man to beat, front-runner Donald Trump, again chose not to participate, instead holding a nearby rally. The debate also came after Tuesday's election saw significant Democratic wins. Only 5 of the other candidates qualified for the stage this time round. Well, each was asked why they should be the party's nominee instead of Trump. Take a listen.


RON DESANTIS, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will fight for you. I will make sure to lead this country's revival and I will win for you and your family. If you look where we are now, it's a lot different than we were in 2016. And Donald Trump's a lot different guy than he was in 2016. He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Everybody wants to talk about President Trump. Well, I can talk about President Trump. I can tell you that I think he was the right president at the right time. I don't think he's the right president now. Let's make sure we pay down our debt. I think we need an accountant in the White House. Let's make sure that we have transparency in the classroom. As a mom, I know what that means.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE I think there's something deeper going on in the Republican Party here. And I am upset about what happened last night. We've become a party of losers at the end of the day. It's a cancer in the Republican establishment.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll say this about Donald Trump. Anybody who's going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail and courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country. It needs to be said plainly.

TIM SCOTT, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need a president and a candidate who will actually help our base solidify and attract independent voters into our party. The Great Opportunity Party is now winning back African-American voters and Hispanic voters because we are working on a foundation based on faith.


COREN: Well, CNN senior political commentator Scott Jennings joins us now from New York. Scott, great to have you with us. Who are the stars of tonight's debate?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I thought Nikki Haley had an incredibly strong performance tonight. She's kind of been rising in some of the polls. She's overtaken Ron DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire. She still trails DeSantis in Iowa, but she's getting a lot of attention right now. She got off to a great start with a great opening statement and had a lot of strong moments on foreign policy. She had some back and forth with Vivek Ramaswamy. And I think her exchanges with Vivek, although he's sort of far down, show her to be a fighter. And I think that's working for her.

I also think Ron DeSantis had a good night. He had a great opening statement. He had some good exchanges on issues as well. So, the 2 people that I think are really plausible as alternatives to Trump are Haley and DeSantis. They both had a great night. Neither of them dominated the other. They'll probably both get the most attention in the aftermath of this. I think for the rest of the crew, it was kind of an also ran evening.

COREN: Well, as you mentioned, personal attacks were fired, which resulted in Nikki Haley calling Ramaswamy scum. What did you make of that moment?

JENNINGS: Well, he was going after her about her calling for a ban on TikTok, and then he attacked her for her daughter using TikTok. Now, her daughter is 25 years old. She's a grown woman. I think Haley took exception to having her daughter in vote. Her daughter is not a public person, by the way, and is not involved in the campaign as far as I can tell. What's really interesting about Ramaswamy's attack on Haley claiming hypocrisy on TikTok is that he used to assail TikTok. He once called it digital fentanyl. And after he did that at a town hall in Iowa, five days later, he then announced he was joining TikTok. And so, he's kind of been all over the place on this as well.


I actually thought the stage was mostly unified on the idea of banning TikTok or at least curbing it because of the concern about what children are being fed on the app and what China may be collecting in terms of U.S. data. Vivek was sort of the most forward-leaning person on TikTok, and I'm thinking Republican voters are not where he is on it.

COREN: You mentioned that Nikki Haley seems to be gaining traction and support as a moderate Republican who can, quote, get things, put things, I should say, back together. Could she pose a threat to Trump if this trend continues in support for her?

JENNINGS: Well, I mean, it's hard to say that today. Trump's in a dominant position. Look, he's over 50 percent in the national polls, near 60 percent. He's got dominant leads in Iowa and in New Hampshire. And I think for someone to really make a run at him, they're going to have to get close to him in New Hampshire. Maybe they don't have to beat him, but you've got to get close and make yourself look like a plausible nominee. He's obviously still ahead in the next state, New Hampshire. I meant Iowa. That's the first state. But he's still ahead in the next state, New Hampshire.

You'd really have to find a way to get close and just not get blown out in the first 2 states because what's going to happen is if Trump looks dominant going in and looks dominant coming out of Iowa and or New Hampshire, you know, the field is just going to collapse and he's going to be the nominee. There is a high likelihood today he'll be the nominee no matter what any of these folks do.

If, you know, let's say DeSantis dropped out tomorrow, not all of his voters are going to go to Haley. A lot of his voters are going to go to Trump. I mean, the reality of Trump is even people that are voting for DeSantis and Haley right now, a lot of them like Donald Trump. And so, they might gravitate back to - back to him just as easily as they could gravitate to someone else.

COREN: Scott, this debate tonight came a day after voters across the country rebuked the Republican Party, especially over abortion rights. Will the GOP presidential candidates adapt? And are we seeing that already?

JENNINGS: Interestingly, Nikki Haley is getting a lot of praise for her answer on abortion tonight. I've seen from across the Republican spectrum, people are saying the way she described the issue and her approach to it is something that they really rallied too tonight. The interesting thing about the primary process, though, is the first state is Iowa.

A huge number of evangelical Christian Republicans make up the folks who go to the Iowa caucus. And so the Republican candidates want to attract support from them. They cannot stray too far to the middle or to the left on abortion. When you go to the next state, New Hampshire, more secular, not as much evangelical influence on the people voting in the primary. Plus, you could have independents and Democrats voting in the Republican primary. So, I think Ron DeSantis is still hewing a more conservative line on that topic.

You saw Nikki Haley start to try to widen the aperture on that argument, perhaps in anticipation of making a stand on it in New Hampshire. Of course, sitting atop all this is Trump. He appointed the 3 Supreme Court justices that ultimately led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And there's been some reporting that even he believes the Republican Party is in trouble on the issue of abortion right now. And he is seeking to moderate his stance as well.

COREN: Scott Jennings, great to get your analysis.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

COREN: Many thanks for your time. Well, the months long actors strike officially ended just a few minutes ago, hours after the Actors Union reached a tentative agreement with the major film and television studios. The group representing the studios praised the deal, saying it provides the biggest contract gains in the history of the union and also gives extensive compensation protections and the use of artificial intelligence, which had been one of the main sticking points.

The president of the Actors Union, Fran Drescher, posted on Instagram, quote, We did it. Billion plus dollar deal. Three times the last contract. The agreement still has to be ratified by the roughly 160 000 members of the SAG-AFTRA union. Well, joining us now is Emily Longeretta, senior editor at Variety magazine. Lovely to have you with us. Is this a breakthrough deal what the actors were after or have they had to compromise?

EMILY LONGERETTA, VARIETY SENIOR TV FEATURE EDITOR: You know, in any deal, they have to compromise any time there is any sort of discussion that lasts this long, 118 days, one of the longest we've ever seen. And it's very, very historic. So, of course, there was some compromise there on some key issues, but they didn't put -- they put up a very good fight.

You know, just 5 days ago, the studio said they were giving out their final offer. And, you know, that didn't end up really being the case because the union ended up pushing back and really fighting for the terms that they wanted, even though they said their final offer, they ended up pushing back specifically on the A.I. terms and exactly the -- the wording that was used and making sure that everyone was protected. And while we don't know the details yet, because like you said, they're not releasing that until Friday after the vote is it happens. We do know that there were -- is a very big protection now against the future of A.I., which is still pretty unknown.


COREN: Emily, we understand that there was frustration certainly growing in some camps and among some big-name actors to -- to strike a deal. Was support for this strike, one of the longest and broadest work stoppages in Hollywood, starting to wane, do you think? LONGERETTA: I don't know if it was starting to wane. I think people were ready to get back to work. I think we're in a time that people are really, really wanting to see new content. They wanted to promote their projects on TV and in the big theaters. And of course, everything was getting pushed. And 118 days is a very long time.

But today, when the contract was, -- when the deal was met and the strike was officially announced as over, we were told that there were tears of joy in the room. And that the support from the actors we've seen on social media has been completely positive. And that they're really thankful that the union stuck to their guns as long as they did. It's not easy to be out on the picket lines every day for 118 days. And they did that. So ultimately, the actors all around are really, really happy with their union leaders.

COREN: What do you think the big studios have learned from this experience? It's no doubt hurt their bottom line. And do you think that there could be retribution in the future?

LONGERETTA: You know, there's always the risk of that. I think that one big thing that came out of this is that they couldn't really be pushed around. The unions can't be pushed around. And they won't really just give in. I think early on in the strike, both the writers' strike and the actors' strike, there were a lot of messaging out there that the studios were saying, they won't back down until people are out of jobs and are out of money. And clearly, that was happening. I mean, this is a huge loss for the industry on every aspect. But this contract is valued over $1 billion, which means that the studios were losing a lot of money. And ultimately, had to pay the actors for what they deserve.

So, they really are realizing that, unfortunately, in the long run, this is not something that was going to be beneficial for them. This is something that the actors were sticking to their guns. And they learned that they can't really play hardball at the end of the day, because the team of leaders for the union were going to fight for the multiple points that they deserved. And it's important to note that it wasn't just the AI point. It was a lot about those streaming residuals and fighting for the right raises and the increase in salary that hadn't been happening. I mean, they got the largest increase in 40 years that we are hearing.

COREN: Emily Longeretta, great to have you with us. Thank you.

All questions are growing about the political endgame in Gaza, more than a month into Israel's war against Hamas. This is thousands of Palestinians fled south from northern Gaza through a temporary evacuation corridor opened by the IDF on Wednesday. Israel says its troops are now in the heart of Gaza City, targeting Hamas infrastructure and commanders. Well, earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will be in charge of Gaza's overall security indefinitely after the war. But on Wednesday, the US pushed back against that, laying out its vision for Gaza's future.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Gaza cannot continue to be run by Hamas. That simply invites a repetition of October 7th, and Gaza uses the place from which to launch terrorist attacks. It's also clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza. The only question is, is there some transition period that might be necessary, and what might be the mechanisms that you could put in place for that to make sure that there is security? But we're very clear on no reoccupation, just as we're very clear on no displacement of the Palestinian population.


COREN: For more, Elliot Gotkine joins us now from London. Well, Elliot, as we just heard from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the US is pushing back on Netanyahu's plan to provide security to Gaza indefinitely, saying that's not a good idea. How has Israel responded?

ELLIOT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: I mean, it's probably not a bad thing, Anna, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has kicked off this debate, because thought does need to go into what happens the day after this war is over. Now, when he made those -- that statement about Israel having overall security responsibility for an indefinite period of time, that, of course, set off alarm bells at the White House, which was concerned about this hint of potentially Israeli reoccupying the Gaza Strip in the way that it did between 1967 and 2005.

And then Secretary of State, as we just heard, Antony Blinken, going one step further in terms of outlining his vision. But having the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, back in control of the Gaza Strip and unifying the 2 administrations, if you like, poses a few problems. The Palestinian Authority is weak. It's unpopular. It lacks legitimacy because Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, is in the 19th year of a 4-year term. It's widely seen as corrupt. And it won't want to add to that laundry list, being seen to be a puppet of either the Israelis or the United States, for that matter.


So, there are some issues with that, of course. Now, what are the alternatives? Maybe some kind of international peacekeeping force, perhaps involving some of the U.S. and Israel's Arab allies. But I think what Israel really wants is to maintain, in the jargon, operational flexibility in a way that it does in the West Bank, to go in and deal with specific security threats as and when they emerge. It won't be wanting to outsource security or the safety of its civilians and wants to ensure that, whether it's rocket fire or attacks of the sorts that we saw on October 7th from Hamas, it won't want to allow the possibility of those happening again.

Of course, in addition to that, we don't know what the Gaza Strip is going to look like the day after this war is over. Will Israel try to maintain some kind of buffer zone? We really don't know what it's going to look like. So, from that perspective, there are still a number of unknowns, including what's going to happen with those 240 or so hostages that Hamas is still holding, and which Israel wants returned. And that will probably be at least 1 of the things that has to happen for this war to end.

And then finally, there's Israeli politics. You've still got the most right-wing government in Israel's history. They won't want to be seen to be doing anything that could be seen as a step towards an independent Palestinian state. Anna.

COREN: Elliot, we've heard from the IDF saying that they are at the heart of Gaza City. What is the next step in this ground operation?

GOTKINE: Look, Israel's stated its objectives over and over again, and that is to destroy Hamas militarily so that it can never again carry out a massacre of the sort that it did on October the 7th. And it wants to ensure that Hamas is no longer in charge of the Gaza Strip. So those are the objectives. It sees Gaza City, where its troops are now on the ground and entering and destroying tunnels, they say, and infrastructure and killing Hamas commanders. It says that it's making progress and that Gaza City is, if you like, the headquarters, the fortress of Hamas. So, it will continue attacking there. Anna.

COREN: Elliot Gotkine in London. Many thanks. Well, Israel is facing political blowback as the civilian death toll mounts in Gaza. And according to some Israelis, that could jeopardise the entire military operation in the long run. Nic Robertson explains.


NIC ROBTERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): As crushing as Israel's airstrikes targeting Hamas are militarily, they've also become politically counterproductive. A crippling consequence. Civilians, thousands of them have been killed. Israel under US pressure for humanitarian pause.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: On the diplomatic front, we are working around the clock to provide the IDF with international manoeuvring room for continued military activity.

ROBERTSON: Netanyahu's plan to destroy Hamas is under threat. Time may be running out.

RONEN BERGMAN, NEW YORK TIMES JOURNALIST: The two clocks. One of how long will it take the IDF to finish what they see as their target? And second, how longer the international community, specifically the US, would tolerate the continuation of this ground offensive? Those are two. Those are not in sync.

RON BEN YISHAI, ISRAELI ANALYST: I am afraid that the United States will succeed in stopping us from completing the work.

Both Ben Yishai and Bergman are respected veteran Israeli journalists. Both have been taken by the IDF to the front line in Gaza.

BERGMAN: None of the strategic goals of this operation has been achieved. Hamas are not going out of the tunnels.

ROBERTSON: According to the IDF, Hamas operatives killed, rockets captured, launch sites discovered. But according to Ben Yishai, at a pace that both Netanyahu and Biden can stomach.

BEN YISHAI: They go very slowly because of two things. First of all, because -- because of the Americans, to be honest. And secondly, because of the safety of the soldiers.

ROBERTSON: Bergman says he's asked IDF officers if they can route Hamas from its tunnels.

BERGMAN: When you ask them, do you think that you can take out the whole of subterranean bunkers? They say, no, there's no way.

ROBERTSON: Meanwhile, Hamas's regular rocket salvos into Israel reinforce their bunker resilience is working, reminding Israelis of their vulnerability to U.S. politics.


BEN YISHAI: This demand by the United States to make a humanitarian pause hits the deepest emotions of the Israelis.

BERGMAN: The Prime Minister and other speakers for the government and the military need to be by far more transparent and direct with Israeli public.

ROBERTSON: A month into the war, Israel appears weakened by its own strength. Hamas, empowered by its tunnels, easily able to weaponize the high civilian death toll. Their officials claim that at least one child is killed every 10 minutes. A shocking statistic that may buy them enough time to fight another day. Nick Robinson, CNN, Sderot, Israel.


COREN: Coming up, Donald Trump's oldest daughter testifies in New York's civil court in defense of her father. The latest in the fraud trial against the former U.S. president, ahead.


COREN: In the skies above Syria, the US has retaliated for a second time against Iranian-backed militias that are attacking American forces. The Pentagon says 2 US F-15 fighter jets struck a weapons depot in eastern Syria used by Iran's Revolutionary Guard and other affiliated groups. But as Natasha Bertrand explains from the Pentagon, the US is taking a measured approach to striking back.


NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: The US conducted an airstrike against a weapons storage facility in eastern Syria that US officials say was being used by Iran and its proxy groups to store weapons that were being used to carry out attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria over the last several weeks. There have been over 40 such attacks in recent weeks since October 17th by Iran-backed proxy groups on US and coalition bases in Iraq and Syria. And the US says they conducted this strike, which is the second, in just over 2 weeks on these kinds of weapons storage facilities in Syria in order to degrade Iran and its proxy's ability to carry out these attacks in the future.

They said that they are targeting this infrastructure in order to send a message to the Iranians that these attacks will not be tolerated and also to destroy their weapons stockpile. Now, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin did release a statement about this and said that this - this strike was carried out in self-defense. It is a precision strike.

And he emphasized that the US does not want to see this war expand any further but that the US is - is committed to defending its troops and that it will do so in every possible scenario. And so Secretary Austin, other defense officials really emphasizing that they are carrying out these strikes in limited self-defense in order to destroy Iranian weapons supplies, but that this does not indicate a broader desire by the US to escalate the conflict any further.


However, all of this comes on the same day that Houthis in Yemen, who are backed by Iran, they shot down an MQ-9 Reaper drone that was carrying out surveillance activities over the Red Sea. And so, this conflict, obviously, the U.S. is very concerned that it could spiral, that it could expand, but right now we're doing everything possible to take limited steps to try to defend U.S. troops as well as degrade these Iranian proxy groups' ability to attack U.S. forces in the future. Natasha Bertrand, CNN, at the Pentagon.


COREN: Efforts to keep Donald Trump off the Minnesota primary presidential ballot have failed for the time being, according to a ruling by the state's Supreme Court. There is no state stature that prohibits a major political party from placing on the presidential nomination primary ballot or sending delegates to the national convention supporting a candidate who is ineligible to hold office. The challenge is a bipartisan group of Minnesota voters can appeal the decision. The court also ruled they can refile a case for the general election.

Ivanka Trumk, Trump I should say, took the witness stand in New York Wednesday, testifying in the civil fraud trial against her father, Donald Trump. The New York attorney general says Ivanka was cordial and very courteous in court, unlike her brothers and father, but says her testimony raises questions about her credibility. Kara Scannell brings us the latest in the case against the former U.S. president.


KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The New York attorney general's office rested their case today after calling their final witness Ivanka Trump. She was on the stand all day long and the focus of their questioning had to do with her involvement in 2 loans that she shepherded at the Trump Organization for a golf course in Florida, as well as the old post office building in Washington, D.C. So

Ivanka Trump testified that she was involved in the loans at a high level, but she said with the nitty-gritty details she didn't recall much of that information. These loans are center to the case because the attorney general's office has alleged that the banks received false financial information on their statements and that they provided better interest rates to enrich the Trumps. So that is part of the questioning today that they really focused her in on.

They also asked her about an apartment that she owns in Manhattan. She had an option to buy that apartment for about $8.5 million one year. On Trump's personal financial statements, that apartment was reflected with a value more than twice as much, north of $20 million. She was asked about that. She said at -- she was not privy to her father's financial statements, did not know what went into them. Distancing herself from them just as her brothers Don Jr. and Eric Trump did when they testified last week. So, after she completed her testimony, the AG's office rested their case. Here's what the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said outside of court.

LETITIA JAMES, NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL: At the end of the day, this case is about fraudulent statements of financial condition that she benefited from. She was enriched. And clearly, you cannot distance yourself from that fact. The documents do not lie. The numbers do not lie.

SCANNELL: Trump's lawyers are going to begin their defense on Monday. They've signaled they might call back Don Jr. and Eric Trump to testify, as well as some experts and some bankers to bolster their defense. Kara Scannell, CNN, New York.


COREN: Israel's fight against Hamas isn't just taking place on the ground. It's also happening far below in a massive network of tunnels Hamas has dug under Gaza. We'll take you inside the underground war that's coming.


COREN: Welcome back. I'm Anna Coren. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.


As Israel pounds Gaza with unrelenting airstrikes, it says much of it is not aimed at buildings and fighters. It's aimed, I should say, at fighters -- I'll try that again. It is not aimed at buildings and fighters on the ground but rather a massive network of tunnels that Hamas uses to maneuver, hide, store weapons, and perhaps hold its hostages.

Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann shows us the subterranean war.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Israeli military controls the air and says they've encircled Gaza City on the ground.

But underneath the service, Hamas still has the advantage. Israel is going after Hamas's underground infrastructure.

This soldier shows an electrical system he says is used to circulate air underground.

The IDF says it has destroyed 130 tunnel shafts since the start of the war. That's just a small fraction of what's known as Gaza's Metro.

Yocheved Lifshitz, the 85-year-old Israeli woman, kidnapped and released by Hamas, said through her daughter that it was like a spiderweb of tunnels underground.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are huge, huge networks of tunnels underneath.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Avi Issacharoff is an Israeli undercover operations veteran and co-writer of the hit show, "Fauda."

AVI ISSACHAROFF, CO-CREATOR/CO-PRODUCER, NETFLIX'S "FAUDA": The amount, the spread, that width and the length and all of it, it's like so crazy that you cannot even understand to the bottom how big it is.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Israel says there are hundreds of kilometers of tunnels below Gaza.

In 2018, CNN was given an exclusive look at a Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel inside Gaza, its concrete walls, creating a durable underground maze that favors the defender.

ISSACHAROFF: The terrorist can pop out from this hole, shoot a few shots from his AK-47, or an RPG, go down, walk like 100 meters into the East or to the South and then, boom. Pop up from another entrance to the same tunnel and shoot again against the Israeli forces while they're trying to understand where they are.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Israel created an underground smart barrier, along the Gaza border to protect the digging of tunnels crossing the border. The barrier worked, sort of.

Instead of digging into Israel, militants focused on the tunnels in Gaza, a complex the IDF is now trying to destroy.

The U.S. has dealt with tunnels on a different battlefield in the Middle East. ISIS dug elaborate tunnels in Mosul, Iraq, forcing the local population to help create the underground passageways.

Tunnels can pose problems for even advanced militaries. But Israel faces an even greater challenge. Hamas is believed to be holding many of the approximately 240 hostages underground, possibly in different groups. Any attempt to destroy Hamas's tunnels could sink the chances of bringing them home alive.

LIEBERMANN: Israel has known about the threat of tunnels from Gaza for a decade, if not more. But at first, the numbers were fairly low. Even in 2014, during the war between Israel and Hamas, the number of tunnels was in the dozens.

Now, however, the IDF has to deal with hundreds of kilometers of tunnels underneath Gaza, a process that is only just beginning.

Oren Liebermann, CNN, in Tel Aviv.


COREN: Ukraine is claiming responsibility for the assassination of a Russia-backed official in the occupied Eastern city of Luhansk. Mikhail Filiponenko, a lawmaker in the Kremlin-installed assembly, was killed in a car bombing on Wednesday morning.

Ukraine claims the lawmaker had been involved in the organization of torture chambers in the region, amid growing evidence of Russia's widespread use of torture against Ukrainians in occupied territories.

But Russia says it has launched a criminal investigation into the explosion.


Ukraine may be one step closer to the process of joining the European Union.

The E.U.'s legislative body, the European Commission, has recommended that formal ascension talks between the bloc and Ukraine should begin next year. But only once Kyiv satisfies certain conditions, including reigning in corruption and strengthening national minority safeguards.


URSULA VAN DER LEYEN, EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESIDENT: Ukraine continues to face tremendous hardship and tragedy, provoked by Russia's war of aggression. And yet, the Ukrainians are deeply reforming their country, even as they are fighting a war that is existential for them.


COREN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the move a historic step. Zelenskyy applied for E.U. membership in February of 2022, shortly before Russia invaded his country.

The 27 national E.U. leaders will decide mid-December whether they will accept the commission's recommendation.

Well, the U.S. bids goodbye to some furry former residents. How diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China may lead to the end of panda diplomacy.


COREN: Three of the most popular residents at the National Zoo in Washington are on their way to China. They were shipped by FedEx on a plane dubbed the Panda Express.

It's a sign of the escalating tensions between Beijing and the U.S. And, perhaps the end of what has been known as panda diplomacy. Well, CNN's David Culver has the details. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID CULVER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For weeks, visitors at the National Zoo in Washington have stopped by to say goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to make sure to see them before they leave.

CULVER (voice-over): The zoo's three giant pandas now headed to China. Zoo staff called this a hiatus in their five-decade wildly popular panda program. But Chinese officials will not say for sure if the pandas will be back.

You might wonder why this even matters. There are, of course, far more pressing issues between the U.S. and China.

But as we look deeper, tracking where pandas are leaving and where they're going, you get a better sense of the new world order China's hoping to craft.

These cuddly creatures, used for China's major political and diplomatic needs, especially in places where it hopes to gain. But China says its focus is on conservation and research.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Nixon's visit to our country --

CULVER (voice-over): Beijing's panda diplomacy with Washington, as it's called, kicked off in 1972, following President Nixon's historic visit to China.

Chairman Mao Zedong gifted two pandas to the U.S. Seeing their popularity rise amongst Americans, China sent more pandas to other zoos across the U.S., eventually loaning instead of gifting them. Sometimes for up to half a million dollars per year.


At its height, there were 15 pandas in the United States. But in the last decade, the numbers have dropped, coinciding with worsening U.S.- China relations.

With the three pandas having now left the National Zoo, that only leaves four pandas in the U.S., currently at Atlanta Zoo. The contracts for those pandas expire next year. No word on any extension.

CULVER: And that could mean that, by the end of 2024, the only panda in zoos in all of the Americas would be Xin Xin, right here in Mexico City.

CULVER (voice-over): Xin Xin belongs to Mexico. She's 33, old for a panda but still a main attraction here. And they're bracing for a possible surge in visitors.

CULVER: What would you say to Americans who may not have a panda to visit at their zoo, looking for a visit?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the time being, come to Mexico.

CULVER (voice-over): The pandas that leave the U.S. Travel to China by plane. Their destination: the Chengdu research base of giant panda breeding.

Earlier this year, video surfaced on Chinese social media claiming pandas returning from the Memphis Zoo were being abused, a narrative partially fueled by Chinese state media.

Chinese doctors defended the zoo's treatment of the panda. But others highlighting countries where pandas are seemingly living the life. Like Russia.

Not surprisingly, China's Northern neighbor got a new pair in 2019. President Xi Jinping, alongside his so-called best friend, Vladimir Putin, at Moscow's zoo.

China's also loaned out new giant pandas to other countries, including E.U. nations like Denmark, Finland, and Germany. And in the Middle East, Qatar getting their first panda last year. Regions where China is looking to bolster its relations and increase its influence.

Staff at the National Zoo hopeful China might one day send over more giant pandas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're hopeful for the future. So we have submitted an application that's being reviewed.

CULVER (voice-over): But that is up to China to decide.

CULVER: Zoo officials tell me they have no plans to ask either the State Department or the White House for help here. Instead, they'll just hope that a Chinese counterpart will grant them a continuation in the panda program.

David Culver, CNN, Los Angeles.


COREN: Well thanks so much for watching. I'm Anna Coren in Hong Kong. I'll be back with more CNN NEWSROOM at the top of the hour. WORLD SPORT is next.