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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Interview with Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief; Avi Mayer; House Republicans Picked Congressman Steve Scalise as Their Nominee for Speaker; Secretary of State Blinken Meets with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu; Hamas Attack has Unified Israeli Society; Blinken Expected to Speak in Israel; Death Toll Rises in Gaza to 1,354 People; U.S. in Talks with Israel and Egypt. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 12, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good mooring. Thank you for being up early with us. I am Kasie Hunt.

It is 5:30 a.m. here in the nation's capital. It is 12:30 p m. in Gaza City, where moments ago, huge plumes of smoke were spotted along the skyline. Israel has been pounding Hamas targets in Gaza with what its military calls a large-scale strike.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv a short time ago for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We expect to hear from Blinken. And joining us now is Avi Mayer. He's the editor in chief of the "Jerusalem Post," who -- for being here.

And I just want to set the scene for our viewers because behind you, I mean, honestly, I didn't quite realize we were going to see so much of what's unfolding, but you are at a funeral for one of the soldiers who was killed in this Hamas attack. Tell us a little bit about where you are, why, and who is the man that they are burying today?

AVI MAYER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, JERUSALEM POST: Sure, Kasie. I'm here at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem to pay respect to Valentin Ganasya (ph), who is a 23-year-old soldier, originally from France, who was in the line of fire. He's actually the front lines at kibbutz Be'eri, one of the kibbutzim that was most affected by the massacre on Saturday.

As I understand it, he managed to maintain fire for about eight hours, saving an untold number of lives before he was killed in battle. And so, he's actually the cousin of a friend of mine. I came to pay my respects. I don't know if you can see, but behind me there are three other fresh graves of other young people who were killed on Saturday.

This is a country in shock, and it's a country in mourning. 1,300 people confirmed as of now. This is just one of them. There are funerals like this taking place every single day across the country. I can tell you, as I was entering the cemetery, they had electronic signs up to direct people because there were so many funerals happening simultaneously just in this one cemetery. So, you can imagine what it's like throughout the country.

HUNT: I mean, that's just a stunning reality. I mean, and, you know, I think maybe it might be hard for some people to realize, you know, Israel is a small -- it's geographically very compact. It's about the size of New Jersey in population. And the reality is so many families -- you said you're here because it's a friend of your cousin. Do you know anyone who doesn't -- isn't -- hasn't been touched by this tragedy? Who doesn't know someone who's been killed or taken?

MAYER: There's no one in Israel who hasn't been affected by this in some way, not a single home who doesn't have a friend, a family member, a colleague, a neighbor, who has either been killed or lost someone or whose family member has gone missing and is presumed being held hostage in Gaza. The reality is devastating.

And I can tell you at the beginning of this funeral, they made an announcement indicating that if there were rocket sirens, everyone should know what to do. They should lie on the ground. That's the reality we're living with today. We're on constant fir, and that is the situation that we're finding ourselves in at this very moment.

HUNT: Yes. Can you talk a little bit about the feeling among the people of Israel in terms of what the actions are that should be taken? Clearly, this happened in front of a backdrop of what had been considerable, domestic political strife, you know, massive protests of the government over changes to the judicial system, et cetera. That obviously has all changed on a dime. What now -- how are Israelis feeling about each other and about what should happen next?

MAYER: Israelis are unified as never before. You have to understand that in times of crisis, the State of Israel comes together, as do Jews around the world. And although we had been in a period of, as you said, unprecedented domestic strife, tremendous internal discord over the government's judicial program, that has all fallen by the wayside. We now have a unity government that was formed just last night, an emergency government meant to deal with this crisis, and you have an unprecedented mobilization, not only of soldiers to serve in the reserves, but volunteers across the country who are working to support families who've been evacuated from the affected areas to feed the elderly, children whose parents have gone missing.


This is a country that has been mobilized, a country that is in tremendous pain and trauma, but a country that the moment is quite unified and ready for the task ahead.

HUNT: Obviously, we've talked a lot about the humanity of this because of where you are. But you also are a top journalist in the country. And I'm curious to know, you know, what is your expectation in terms of what the government will do about the people of Gaza?

I mean, clearly, we've heard this morning that Israel plans to cut off food, fuel, water until the hostages are released, but that obviously is going to mean a lot of humanitarian suffering for people there who perhaps don't support Hamas. This is something that is -- it's going to be a tragedy there too. How are Israelis -- how are you thinking about that?

MAYER: I think Israelis are eager to hear those voices from within Gaza that oppose what happened on Saturday. So, far, we haven't heard any, quite frankly, at all. All we've seen are celebrations in the streets of Gaza being paraded around -- the hostages being paraded around as trophies. We haven't seen a great deal of opposition to what Hamas did. I'd like to believe that there is some. I'd like to hear about it.

At the moment, what the government of Israel is doing is protecting its citizens, doing whatever it can to bring its hostages home, elderly men and women, families with small children who are being held by Hamas, and to deal Hamas a devastating blow that it will never forget.

Israel is a sovereign country. It is not only its right but its responsibility to keep its citizens safe. That is what it is doing, and it will do whatever it must to ensure that Hamas never does anything like this, never perpetrates a massacre like this ever, ever again.

HUNT: Yes. All right. Avi Mayer of the Jerusalem Post. Sir, I really hope you'll join us again. I really appreciate your time, especially at a moment of mourning. Although, I do -- I will say, this is one of those extraordinary times where it does feel appropriate to let all of us, let the world see exactly what you all are grieving. So, thank you.

MAYER: Thank you.

HUNT: All right. Let's come back to Washington now, because House Republicans have picked Congressman Steve Scalise as their nominee for Speaker. But the Louisiana Republicans still well short of the votes he needs to actually win the gavel. Scalise beat rival Jim Jordan Wednesday, 113 to 99 in a closed-door secret ballot vote. But he'd need 217 votes in public on the floor to actually get the gavel.

And assuming that Democrats remain united behind Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, it's a pretty safe assumption, in the narrowly divided House, Scalise can only afford to lose four Republican votes. And that's unlikely at the moment.


REP. TROY NEHLS (R-TX): Steve Scalise got 113 votes. That is a majority. But how are you going to convince the other hundred and something all of a sudden just say, well, now, we're all going to vote for Steve Scalise. I think Steve Scalise is a great guy. But he got 51 percent of the conference.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The leader that I want to stand behind is Jim Jordan. And right now, my mind hasn't changed.

REP. LAUREN BOEBERT (R-CO): I think the leader is a really great man. And I've committed publicly to voting for Jim Jordan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can anyone get 217?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the hope.


HUNT: That's the hope. Capitol Hill reporter Annie Greyer joins us now. Annie, good morning. It's always great to see you. You know, look, I got to say, I thought that perhaps the crisis in Israel was going to put a little bit more pressure on the Republican conference to try and get it together and make sure that they got a speaker set and ready to go so that they could get an aid package out the door sooner rather than later. But it doesn't actually seem to have changed the reality too much.

And when I woke up this morning, and I'm curious if this is the feeling that you're getting, it seems like Scalise's bid for speaker is really teetering right now. The path forward's not clear. It's not clear if we're going to see a vote today. I mean, what is your latest reporting on this?

ANNIE GRAYER, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, Kasie, good morning. I mean, right now, Steve Scalise has a math problem. He can only lose four Republicans and still win on the floor. And there are as many as around a dozen who have publicly said that they're going to vote for somebody else on the floor.

This is not where Republicans wanted to be. They wanted to present a united front. They wanted this to be over quickly. So, as you mentioned, they could get back to work. They could help Israel. They could pass appropriations bills, but none of that can happen right now.

I mean, after the closed-door vote yesterday, Scalise started meeting with some of the people who said they don't want to support him. But Scalise has a long way to go. I mean, Jim Jordan, who Scalise beat, met with -- the pair met and even Jordan said, you know, I will back you on the floor, willing to nominate him on the floor, but -- and calling his supporters, trying to get them also to back Steve Scalise, but that so far has not been enough.


I mean, if you remember with Kevin McCarthy, he took months trying to win over his conference, and that still took him 15 rounds of voting on the floor.

HUNT: Yes.

GRAYER: Steve Scalise does not have that kind of time. Republicans do not want another public display of dysfunction on the floor. They want to come to the floor once, hold this vote once. But that's why we haven't seen the votes scheduled yet, because they know they don't have the votes and they don't want to lose on the floor.

HUNT: Yes. I mean, that's the really remarkable thing about this. I mean, we almost never see a situation where a floor vote doesn't go a speaker's way because they get it all sorted out behind closed-doors. Obviously, that's not the case here.

What's your sense, Annie, of the role that Kevin McCarthy is playing in all of this? Because I have to say, as I've been sort of talking to my sources up there, there is a suggestion that he's not really interested in helping Steve Scalise a whole lot. They have this rivalry that goes back to, you know, five, six years or so when he thought that Scalise was kind of quietly plotting to take -- to try and challenge him for the leadership role and he's never really forgotten about it. What's your sense of going on there?

GRAYER: Yes, Kasie. I think you put your finger on it. I mean, Kevin McCarthy is not sticking his neck out, not overreaching, trying to help Steve Scalise. It's -- he believes it's Steve Scalise's problem to solve. I mean, Kevin McCarthy left much earlier in the day than Steve Scalise and some of the other members did because, you know, Kevin was voted out. It's not his -- he doesn't see it as his problem anymore.

I mean, the role that he really can play though is he does have a large hold over the conference. There are some of his allies who still pledge to vote for him on the floor, even though McCarthy is not a nominee for speaker, McCarthy could be talking to them behind the scenes. I mean, it sounds like he is, but could be trying to convince them to vote for Scalise. But right now, there are still members who are supporting Kevin McCarthy for speaker.

HUNT: Yes. What's your sense, Annie, of what the differences would be between -- for a Scalise speakership or -- and potentially a Jordan speakership? And if it's not one of those two choices, I mean, is there still a possibility that there's a surprise here? Because right now, it doesn't seem like there's a clear path for either of these two men.

GRAYER: Right. There's not a clear path, but the question is, if not these two, then who? I mean, there's some talk of a potential dark horse third candidate. I mean, Patrick McHenry is currently serving as the acting speaker of the house. Some have said, why not give him more powers in this time while the Republican conference figures out who they actually want to elect as speaker. So, at least in the meantime, Republicans can get back to their business of passing appropriations bills because that government funding deadline, remember, is November 17th. And also try and do more to help Israel.

But there's nothing certain right now, and that's why, you know, we're coming back into session today at noon, and it's unclear if there's going to be a vote today. Steve Scalise is certainly going to keep pushing and going to try and win over those detractors. It's just unclear, Kasie, at this point, if he can get there.

HUNT: Yes, I mean, it's just a wild scenario. I mean, I would have thought we would have been sitting here talking about how political pressure was building to end a government shutdown, and instead, we got to wait for political pressure to build on Republicans to get it together and actually pick somebody to lead the House. Annie Greyer, thank you very much for being here with us this morning. I know you got a really long day ahead. I really appreciate it. And just in to CNN, we have new video of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. There you see him. He is meeting right now with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Blinken arrived about two hours ago in Tel Aviv, and we do expect to hear from him shortly. We're going to have live coverage right here on CNN. We'll be right back.




JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: There's No justification for terrorism. There's no excuse.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Our condemnation belongs squarely with terrorists who have brutally murdered, raped, kidnapped hundreds, hundreds of Israelis. There can be no equivocation about that. There are not two sides here. There are not two sides.


HUNT: Couldn't be more clear, not two sides. That was the White House press secretary responding to this from Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib on Sunday. She's the only Palestinian American member of Congress. Tlaib said, "I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today and every day." Adding, "As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue." Here is fellow Democrat Dan Goldman.


REP. DANIEL GOLDMAN (D-NY): Well, look, everyone comes to Congress with their own lived experiences. And Rashida Tlaib is Palestinian American. So, she has family in the Palestinian territories and has a particular view. But she is one person. She does not represent the Democratic Party.


HUNT: All right. Let's bring in Daniel Strauss. He's the CNN national politics reporter. Daniel, good morning. Obviously, these issues don't typically have 100 percent consensus, but the Democratic Party has historically been very, very supportive of Israel. And while there are only a handful of voices in the party that are calling for this in the wake of this attack to stop giving Israel aid in the wake of this horrific attack from Hamas, it's enough to cause significant, honestly, political questions to the White House press secretary, among others, but also significant emotion among the Democratic caucus.

I mean, I have talked to Democrats, some Jewish, some not, who are very outraged, frankly, about the fact that this exists in their caucus at all. How do you see this playing out?


DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: I mean, it's a good question. It comes at a time when Democrats were actually enjoying a fair amount of cohesion and unity, but the subject of Israel and Palestine has been a point of tension within the party prior to these attacks. So, what we're seeing right now is really the culmination of various wings like the squad and their desire, their approach to addressing the crisis, the ongoing divisions in Israel and Palestine with other sections of the party.

I -- what we're -- what's been clear is that as the White House has quietly reached out to Jewish groups during this crisis that they are -- the Biden administration is very interested in keeping the focus on defending Israel and returning the American hostages home. But it's very clear, at the same time, that there isn't very much tolerance for any kind of two sides-ism within the party at this moment.

HUNT: Yes. Is there anything -- I mean, I know we saw some attempts at action in the wake of some comments made by other members of the squad, Ilhan Omar, within the Democratic Party. I mean, obviously Republicans kicked her off the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that was partisan as much as it was anything else, but there were, there were also conversations about rebukes. Now, granted, Democrats were running the House at the time. So, they had more kind of formal options for sanctioning members of their own party. Is there any thinking that that's something that might go forward, or is -- at this point, do they just let it lie?

STRAUSS: I mean, there hasn't been active discussions as far as I have seen or heard on any kind of, like, rebuke on the floor or congressional hand slapping right now. It's just pretty clear at this moment, Kasie, that the party is trying to find its footing and want -- and find a very clear line that they feel is compassionate to all civilians and all parties that are being affected by this crisis.

HUNT: Yes. So, Daniel, what kind of is the next turn here for the linking of Israel and Ukraine in terms of our politics? Because this is something the White House is talking about. They're sort of linking the two issues, saying, look, this is -- these are democracies that are under siege from, obviously in the case of Israel, terrorists, in the case of Ukraine, the Russians. But we know that the Ukraine aid has been under threat in Congress because Republicans on the right have started to oppose it in greater numbers. They obviously do not oppose the aid to Israel. So, tying them together could lead to the money getting out the door.

Do you think that's something that -- I mean, it's honestly even hard to ask this question because there's no speaker of the house, but do you think that's something that the eventual speaker of the house might go along with?

STRAUSS: I mean, we don't know who the next speaker of the house will be.

HUNT: Right. STRAUSS: It's pretty clear though that the divisions among Republicans on aid to Ukraine are not going to be analogous to any sort of divisions or discussions for aid to Israel at this moment.

And, you know, look, Kasie, one thing I have seen in my reporting over the past 48 hours is that Republicans want to take Ukraine, Israel and Afghanistan and use all of those different situations to argue that this administration, this White House is bad at crisis management at the international level. But where -- as it concerns aid to Israel and aid to Ukraine, I -- these are just not areas that are going to be linked together in any sort of political discussion, I think, anytime soon.

HUNT: Yes. No, I think that's a really good point. Very interesting reporting. Daniel Strauss, I really appreciate you bringing it to us this morning.

STRAUSS: Thanks.

HUNT: Thank you. All right. You are looking live. We're going to be looking live at a podium. We wait for -- it looks like we may have lost the shot, but we're waiting for Anthony Blinken to speak. We're going to bring that to you as it happens. We'll be right back.



HUNT: There are new explosions over Gaza this morning as the death toll rises in Gaza to 1,354 people with over 6,000 injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

The State Department, meanwhile, is expected to ramp up negotiations with Israel and Egypt to try to create a humanitarian corridor for Americans and other civilians that are trying to flee Gaza now that Secretary of State Blinken has arrived in the region.

CNN's Clare Sebastian is tracking developments from London. Clare, what's the latest on these negotiations?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning, Kasie. The U.S. side and certainly Secretary Blinken, as he boarded his plane to travel to Israel, are staying pretty quiet about these negotiations underway, he said. We're also hearing similar from an Israeli official, a senior Israeli official speaking to CNN's Matthew Chance. Although, this official fleshed out a little bit that there had been a proposal put on the table that would allow for any American citizen who could present their passport to exit through the Rafah Crossing. You can see it there to the south of the Gaza Strip into Egypt.

And that there was a proposal to allow a limited amount of Palestinian civilians, 2,000 per day, to do the same. This is extremely complicated, obviously, because of the bombardment, the spiraling humanitarian crisis. Time is of the essence because of the potential for a ground offensive, but obviously, complicated for Egypt because we're looking at a huge potential influx of refugees. Egypt, of course, on the border with Gaza. So, talks are apparently underway and likely a focus of Secretary Blinken's time as he visits the region today.

HUNT: All right. Clare Sebastian in London, thank you very much for that reporting. And thank you all very much for joining us on this sixth day of the war between Israel and Gaza in the wake of those awful Hamas terrorist attacks. I'm Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN This Morning" starts right now.