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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Sirens Warn of Incoming Rockets Near Ashdod; Biden Tells Netanyahu Assistance is "On Its Way"; Interview with The Washington Post White House Reporter Tyler Pager; IDF Says it is Fighting Hamas on the Ground in Israel; Interview with Former Prime Minister of Israel and Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid; Interview with Senator Chris Coons (D-DE); Biden Pledges Full Support to Israel. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 09, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Welcome back. We're going to get right to our Nic Robertson on the ground in Israel with the sirens that have been blaring this morning. Nic, what's the latest there?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, Kasie. What you're looking at right now, the Iron Dome missile interceptor system, taking fire and aim at incoming rockets that are coming out of Gaza right now. Look at them arcing up. This is the defensive missile system taking off.

The sirens were going off around here. And you can see -- I can see black smoke rising just to the left of the Iron Dome. That's new black smoke. Black smoke often indicates an impact. We don't know that right now. But we have seen at least several dozens of these interceptor rockets, the Iron Dome, taking off here. The sirens have gone off. I'm looking down the highway. The traffic stopped here. Everyone is getting out of their vehicles to find a safe space to hide.

And you're hearing the booms there of the intercepts that are happening. Look to the right, to the right now, there's another impact it appears. That dirty dust that's rising up from the fields in the distance there, that appears to be an impact of the rocket landing right there now. So, these are rockets -- Hamas rockets coming through Gaza, the Iron Dome trying to intercept them, landing here

Obviously, this is part of Hamas' ongoing offensive. And the number of Iron Dome interceptors launched seems to indicate quite a large barrage of rockets that have been fired out of Gaza at the moment. Kasie.

HUNT: So, Nic, can you help us understand a little bit more about -- the Iron Dome system, obviously, has been in place for a long time. The U.S. often supplies, helps Israel build this system. They've asked for more help from it. Obviously, this entire situation has been unprecedented. But it does seem like this system is holding for now. Is that your understanding or what is the likelihood or danger that the Iron Dome might not be able to continue to work the way that it has worked?

ROBERTSON: The only thing that we're aware of that can compromise the Iron Dome is a lack of ammunition. And there's no indication that it has a lack of ammunition at the moment. Generally, the stocks are high in anticipation of events like this. The United States supplies more ammunition as required by Israel. I think it goes without saying, at the moment, that those flows of ammunition will be ready, will be coming. That's the commitment we heard from President Biden.

The way the system works, the system works across the country. The Iron Domes, wherever they are on the ground, like the one we saw firing out there, interlocks with other Iron Dome firing systems throughout the country. Where missiles are fired from Gaza, the system reads, detects where the missiles are precisely coming from and where they're calculated to be going. And the nearest and best available Iron Dome system fires off to intercept those Hamas rockets as they come into Israeli territory. That's what we're witnessing right now.

HUNT: All right. Nic Robertson, thank you very much. Stay close.

As the fighting rages on in Israeli, President Biden made clear over the weekend that he fully stands behind Israel after the attack by Hamas.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: When I spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, I told him that the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorist assaults. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop. There's never a justification for terrorist attacks. And my administration's support for Israel's security is rock solid and unwavering.



HUNT: Of course, this comes as the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight. And there are lingering questions about what additional aid Ukraine might receive. Let's bring in Tyler Pager. He is a White House reporter at "The Washington Post." Tyler, good morning. Thank much for -- very much for being here.

The president -- this is the second war that the president is going to have to be dealing with here. We have incredible dysfunction in the U.S. government as well. Let's talk a little bit about the enormous challenges facing this administration right now.

TYLER PAGER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. It's great to be with you, Kasie. Thanks for asking me. And you're exactly right, just before the war broke out in Israel, obviously, the White House and Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, for that matter too, have been pushing for more aid for Ukraine. Obviously, that effort has been stymied by the dysfunction in the House and the fight over government spending.

Now, that fight continues for more in Ukraine aid, but there's also this ongoing war in Israel that is going to draw a lot of attention away from Congress. Already there's a push in the Senate to get a confirmation for U.S. ambassador to Israel, that post is currently vacant. And there's discussion about what sort of military and humanitarian assistance the U.S. may provide to Israel. So, a lot on the plate of leaders here in Washington that just started to unfold over the weekend.

HUNT: Tyler, can we talk for a moment about the relationship between President Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu. It has been a little bit rocky lately, but this obviously likely to solidify ties for now between the two leaders.

PAGER: Yes. The two leaders know each other for quite some time. Both have been at the top of politics in their country for a long time. They just met last month in September. I was there in New York at the -- on the sideline of UNGA. And it was a meeting that Netanyahu had been craving, though not the exact contact one he wanted. He wants an official visit to the White House, which he was granted by the president.

Netanyahu is supposed to visit Washington and have that official White House meeting by the end of the year. Obviously, whether that happens remains to be seen. But Biden has expressed a lot of concern with Netanyahu's leadership. Concerns about the domestic overhaul related to the judicial system that a lot of democracy advocates have been concerned about.

Now, this completely transforms that relationship. Biden has obviously been a staunch and longtime ally of Israel, and very concerned about the security situation there. So, this will bring them closer together. But it does, you know, bring into light the fact that they have had some tensions between the two of them. You know, they have maintained a line of communication.

HUNT: Yes.

PAGER: But Biden has been concerned about what Netanyahu and his party have been doing moving (INAUDIBLE) in recent months.

HUNT: All right. Tyler Pager, thank you very much for being with us this morning.

We're going now to CNN's Becky Anderson. She is live in Tel Aviv with a special interview at this critical moment for Israel. Becky.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR AND MANAGING DIRECTOR, CNN ADU DHABI: Yes, thank you very much, indeed. This is a watershed moment for Israel and indeed, for the region. At least 700 Israelis have been killed in the attack by Hamas militants from all sides of the aisle. Those from all sides of the aisle, calling for a unity government here, including the former prime minister and opposition leader, Yair Lapid. He says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that with the current extreme and dysfunctional security cabinet, he can't manage a war. Well, Yair Lapid joining me now from Tel Aviv. And it's good to have you, sir. I am also in Tel Aviv. You will be hearing what I am hearing, booms around us, as there's clearly been a real optic in this conflict just in the past hour or so. What do you understand to be happening as we speak?

YAIR LAPID, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL AND ISRAELI OPPOSITION LEADER: Well, first of all, you're right. I'm giving you this interview, Becky, in between sirens. And hopefully, we will not have one that forces both of to us go down to the shelter, which only comes to tell you what position we are in.

And, you know, we are suffering -- I mean, politics aside, the whole country is now suffering and bleeding. This is, you know, the worst day in our history since the holocaust. This is -- I mean, since the holocaust, there was not such a number of Jews killed in one day. And I'm the son of a holocaust survivor. So, it touches you places you usually don't think about.


We will do everything necessary in order to make sure that Israel is safe and sound. And we are taking away from Hamas' capabilities, whether it's from the government or from the opposition, we'll be -- I mean, the Israel will stand united. And I know we will stand united with the United States. We couldn't appreciate more what President Biden and the bipartisan support we got in the last 48 hours.

ANDERSON: What does that support look like physically?

LAPID: Well, apparently, I mean, everybody in his right mind understands that we are now going into a long operation in Gaza in order to make sure we're taking away from Hamas these horrible capabilities. And incursion is not off the table as well. And we're going to need the support of -- I mean, Iron Dome is crucial and other facilities.

We are in an ongoing discussion with the administration about the tactical needs Israel have. And we know -- I mean, the administration was out of its way telling us they're going to be helpful in any possible way, and we appreciate that.

We are protecting women and children. I mean, Becky, you saw -- you are here, you saw the pictures of children who were killed on the floor, of women, of -- the elderly being kidnapped to Gaza. What do they need 85-year-old grandmothers that they kidnap for to Gaza? Why do they need them? What kind of people doing such things?

ANDERSON: Yair Lapid, let's talk about what is being achieved on the ground. Those communities, as I understand it, around the Gaza border, according to the IDF, are now secured. What do we know about the breaches of that border and militants who are still breaching that border? What do we know about militants in the -- on the Israeli side? And is the IDF fighting them on Israeli soil?

LAPID: Yes. The IDF is still fighting them on the ground soil. We still see -- I mean, we are minimizing this as we speak. But still, the IDF is fighting in Israeli villages and towns and communities. And we'll do so until we are totally certain there's not a single terrorist trying to kill the innocent, the Israeli civilians.

So -- and on top of this, as you have mentioned, there is the whole attack of rockets and missiles over our towns and cities, and every now and then, we have to go down to the shelter. We have -- I mean, I don't want to say we're used to it. But, you know, it's one of those moments in our lives that everything is mixing.

I was yesterday in the hospital, and I saw one of the doctors, and he came to me and said, how are you? You look tired. And he said, yes, I look tired. I said, so many people who are wounded. And he said, yes, and one of them is my son. And I went inside with him and his son was unconscious. Took two bullets. And I thought of this need of this doctor to take care of his son and be worried sick about his son and then deal with all of these other patients while doing so for two days in a row.

So, this is -- you don't know whether -- I mean, you should be emotional or you should be functional or should be both, and how to be both is how we feel. This is how this country feels right now.

ANDERSON: Yair Lapid, will Israel launch a ground invasion of Gaza? We've heard this morning from the defense minister that there will now be a complete blockade, no fuel, electricity or food, goods going into Gaza. Is this with a view to a ground invasion? And what are you doing to ensure the safety of those Israeli hostages? Hamas suggested they have more than 100 hostages. I know the IDF has been very cognizant about not releasing numbers. But what is the status of what happens next from the Israeli point of view in Gaza?

LAPID: Well, you have just mentioned the complexity of this. I mean, on one hand, everything is on the table, nothing is off, including an incursion. On the other hand, we have people there. And we are worried sick about them. And these are families. This is not soldiers. The majority of them are probably civilians. So many of them just youngsters who went to music festival.


So, what we need to build with most, it is -- as you understand, we are not going to release any operative details now. But people have to understand, this will be over only when Israel wins this and is sure that there -- those capabilities are no longer in the hands of Hamas. This has happened once, it is not going to happen twice.

ANDERSON: So, you had called for an emergency unity government. You said, and you've just described this is so complex, a situation, it needs everybody on board. Who should be in that unity government? Are you prepared to work alongside those from the right-wing, who you've been so vocally against? What are your demands and conditions for a unity government and for playing a part in that unity government going forward?

LAPID: Well, it has nothing to do with demands or with politics or with positions. And all we want is a functional government. What we need now is a government that will be able to handle the situation that is now on our hands.

And I was just telling Prime Minister Netanyahu, both in private and in public, that he knows that the current government will be -- will have trouble dealing with it. And so, we can have the majority of Israelis represented in dealing with this issue together.

Again, if not, it's OK as well. We will be supportive from the opposition. We've done this before. We can do it again. I will do everything in my power and in the opposition power to be supportive to the IDF, to the Israeli people, and even to the government which I usually disagree with because this is bigger than anyone else.

Listen, it's -- as I said, I mean, our people are being killed. I am the son of a holocaust survivor. I'm not willing to tell my children the same stories he was telling me.

ANDERSON: Yair Lapid, do you expect to see a new government here in the hours, days to come?

LAPID: I don't know. I mean, as I said, I told the prime minister, we're going to do whatever is good for the country. He's got his own choices to make. Some other parties in the opposition will get their choices to make as well. Whatever it takes to unite the Israeli people, not the Israeli politicians, we will do. And it can happen both from opposition and correlation.

But, Becky, you know -- I'm not telling you how to conduct your work, but I'm telling you, we're talking about politics way too much here. What we are dealing with is the people we see and the cry of the Israelis who are saying, did you see what just happened to us? How are you going to be helpful in order to make sure it doesn't happen again?

ANDERSON: Understood. Yair Lapid, it's good to have you. It's a difficult morning. It's a difficult time. We very much appreciate your time in joining us here on CNN. Thank you.

LAPID: Thank you. Thank you, Becky, and stay safe as well.

ANDERSON: Thank you. Kasie, the words of Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, in opposition of course with Benny Gantz, a former defense minister here and his perspective on what happens next.

HUNT: Yes.

ANDERSON: But it's absolutely clear. To quote Yair Lapid that this is an enormously complex situation. And as described by the IDF spokesman to me this time yesterday on CNN, this is early days. This is --

HUNT: It is.

ANDERSON: -- on just the beginning. Kasie.

HUNT: It is just the beginning. And let's bring in Democratic Senator Chris Coons to help us understand more of this. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thank you very much for being with us. I want to start by asking you about the briefing that senators received from the administration. I know you received a readout. What did you learn particularly about the role that Iran may have played in this?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE), NATIONAL CO-CHAIR FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN'S 2024 CAMPAIGN: Well, Kasie, we should be all be mindful of the fact that Hamas publicly thanked Iran for their funding, their training, their contributions for this horrific attack on Israeli civilians.

Iran is Russia's partner in their brutal war in Ukraine. It is Iran that is providing the drones carrying out deadly attacks on Ukrainian civilians and it is Iran that has trained and armed Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon that has rained rockets down on Northern Israel. It is Iran that has sent their IRGC fighters into Syria who threatened Israel from the northeast from the Golan Heights. And it is Iran that has funded and trained Hamas that has carried out this attack from Gaza.


Hamas is a Sunni Islamist group that is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. So, whether or not there is specific intelligence about a direct Iranian role in planning this specific attack, there is lots of evidence of active engagement by Iran in supporting the organizations and groups that have caused chaos in the Middle East now for years. And I think this means it is more important than ever that even as Israel is looking to come together politically, to strengthen their defense forces, that we, in the Senate and in Congress, need to also come together to confirm an ambassador to Israel, an ambassador and several other gulf states and Middle Eastern states where we don't currently have ambassadors and stop --

HUNT: How quickly can you do that, sir?

COONS: -- some of the parties (INAUDIBLE) that have gotten in the way of a robust defense of Israel.

HUNT: How quickly can you do that, confirm an ambassador to Israel?

COONS: We could do it next week. In a matter of days.

HUNT: OK. Do you anticipate a classified briefing that might help you learn more information about the Iranian role as you outlined?

COONS: I do.

HUNT: Is that on the calendar yet?

COONS: I'm in a number of different embassies. I'm in Europe this week. I'm in the Netherlands right now. I just finished a very positive, a productive meeting with the prime minister and national security adviser of the Netherlands, they're one of our trusted close NATO allies who have been great partners both in our long engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq and now, in our work together to push back on Russia's brutal invasion. But I have not yet had a classified briefing in an American embassy.

HUNT: Sure.

COONS: I'm hoping to do so in the next few days.

HUNT: OK. What, if anything, did you learn from the unclassified briefing that officials gave last night about the status of Americans killed or perhaps taken hostage here?

COONS: That there are Americans who have been killed. That there are concerns that there are Americans who may well be being held hostage in Gaza. And that more than anything, we are determined to show our strong support for Israel to back its rights to self-defense and to make clear the distinction between a terrorist attack on civilians and other state-to-state conflict.

HUNT: Yes.

COONS: Look, we're at the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which was an attack on Israel by nation states. It was a military invasion of the State of Israel in 1973. This tragic, large-scale assault on civilians, where hostages were taken, where whole civilian families were massacred, where citizens from around the world, but in particular from Israel, were at a concert in the desert were machine gunned to death is a reminder of the distinction between wars between states and terrorist attacks against civilians.

HUNT: Yes.

COONS: No one should be cheering on or supporting this brutal terrorist attack by Hamas. And some of the recent actions in Congress to cut aid to Israel, there was a vote taken in the House just recently that would have reduced aid to Israel by $1 billion, that should be reversed. We should come together quickly and provide support for what President Biden has already pledged, additional munitions and resources. He has already directed that the aircraft carrier Gerald Ford be relocated to the Eastern Med to be prepared to provide support for Israel.

HUNT: Yes. So, speaking of moving quickly, there is currently no permanent speaker of the House. What bearing does that have on this? It seems like it makes it impossible for to us move in a crisis like this?

COONS: Well, Kasie, the chaos is the House is mirrored in some ways by a hold that a Republican senator has now had, for months, on the promotions of hundreds of flag-ranked officers. I think that blocks against confirming ambassadors, holds against confirming admirals and generals need to stop. And it's my hope that a bipartisan coalition in the House will agree to move forward, even for an interim period, and provide critically needed assistance to Ukraine, provide critically needed assistance to Israel, and make it clear that the United States, the American people, will stand shoulder to shoulder with our critical allies, those who are fighting Iranian and Russian aggression in Ukraine and those who are fighting Iranian and terrorist aggression in Israel. HUNT: Yes. Senator Coons, a pretty basic question here, how did the Israelis and how did we miss this?


COONS: An excellent question to which I don't have a great answer. Look, in the same way that the 1973 war was an intelligence failure. It is entirely possible that this ends up being an intelligence failure. That is examined and re-examined for years to come.

Right now, today, in this moment, we need to show strong support for the defense of the civilians of Israel. But it is a key question, how did this happen, that the planning that must have been going on for months was missed in this moment? And to be blunt, Kasie, there is a lot of political turmoil within Israel.

HUNT: Yes.

COONS: There have been significant protests and a grave and widespread concern about a domestic initiative around changing the fundamental role of the judiciary. And I don't know whether that played any role in a distraction by the armed forces or the intelligence community. I would expect not. But internal political division, whether here in the United States or whether in our country in the United States or whether in Israel can be exploited by opponents and enemies.

And so, I just call on my colleagues in the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, to put aside some of our partisan differences and to show unity in our commitment to the defense of Israel.

HUNT: Senator, very important point about the domestic situation. The international situation as well may have played a role here. How much do you think the normalization pact under negotiation facilitated by the United States between Saudi Arabia and Israel has to do with what we're seeing unfold on the ground?

COONS: I think it may very well have encouraged or inspired Iran, and more specifically Hamas to take aggressive terrorist action to try and destabilize Israel and to try and drive apart the closening relationship between the Saudi kingdom and Israel.

There are many of us in the Senate who have been actively discussing what the path forward might look like for normalization. That would be a game-changer for the Middle East. And that would show a path forward towards ending the Arab/Israel conflict. I think that reconciliation can only happen with some significant accommodation for Palestinian concerns, investment in Palestinian opportunity, and a clear path towards there being a Palestinian role in the next stage.

A two-state solution is something I have long supported, as has President Biden. And I do think that seeing the prospect of a normalization between Israel and the Saudis was something that may very well have precipitated this broad spectrum, horrific attack.

HUNT: All right. Senator Coons, we have just about two minutes here. But before I let you go, I want to ask you, the Biden administration sent an incredibly large amount of money to Iran in the course of hostage negotiations. Do you think in hindsight that's going to be looked at as a mistake?

COONS: Kasie, it's important to be accurate, they did not send an incredibly large of money directly to Iran.

HUNT: Well, they sent it to Qatar to be on path. Yes.

COONS: They sent it to Qatar to be released only for humanitarian purposes. And those funds have not yet been released at all for humanitarian purposes. So, those who are busy on the internet blaming our president for helping fund or facilitate this attack are not being truthful.


COONS: It is something that has raised a lot of concerns, but it's important for us to be truthful that these were frozen Iranian assets that are not in Iran and that are being held in Qatar and to be released only for humanitarian purposes.

HUNT: And you don't think they saw that and are counting on it in the context of this crisis?

COONS: I don't think that is financing this crisis. And I think those who are saying so are not being truthful. I also, frankly, think it is regrettable that some of those running for president and some of those I serve with have been directly criticizing and attacking our president, in this moment, blaming him for inciting this incident.

I think we should all find a moment to come together and to say that we can confirm ambassadors, that we can provide financial support to Israel, and that we can stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel in this key moment of national distress, and that we can to support our common purpose in Ukraine, in Israel and throughout the world.

HUNT: All right. Senator Chris Coons, very grateful to have you this morning as we watch all of this unfold. Thank you very much for your time.

COONS: Thank you, Kasie.

HUNT: And we have heard, of course, throughout this hour warning sirens blaring across Israel --