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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Concern War In Israel Could Spread Into Regional Conflict; House Republicans Say GOP Members Ready To Block Jordan; Biden Administration Seeks Aid Package For Both Israel and Ukraine. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 16, 2023 - 05:30   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Both Hamas and Hezbollah, which has bases in Lebanon along Israel's northern border, are considered proxies for Iran. But President Biden says there is no evidence that Iran is behind the Hamas attack on Israel.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, Iran constantly supports Hamas and Hezbollah. I don't mean that. But in terms of were they -- did they have foreknowledge -- did they help plan the attack -- there's no evidence of that.


HUNT: Hmm.

Journalist Elliott Gotkine is with us now from London. Elliott, thank you very much for being with us today.

Let's kind of take a look at this. I mean, obviously, the second carrier group heading into the region kind of underscores U.S. concern about the possible escalation here. Can you help us understand what might happen that could draw Iran into this conflict and cause it to escalate?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Kasie, I think we're no more likely to see Iranian boots on the ground in Israel than we are to see American boots on the ground. But, of course, as you say, we have seen this kind of proxy war going on between Iran and Israel for quite some time.

Now, you mentioned -- you mentioned Hamas and, of course, Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon receiving support. There's also Islamic Jihad. And we've already seen some skirmishes with rockets being fired from Hezbollah from southern Lebanon into Israel and causing casualties, and Israel firing back as well.

And the real concern is that we would see not only a repeat of the war between Israel and Hezbollah that we saw in 2006 but that it could be much more deadly. Because back then, Hezbollah fired around 4,000 rockets towards Israel. Now, by some estimates, it's got as many as 150,000 rockets pointed towards Israel. And these will also be of greater quality -- much more precision-guided for many of those rockets. So there is a danger of a real second front opening there.

To -- on the -- looking at it from a slightly different side, of course, Iran's -- one of Iran and Israel's biggest kind of issues is over Iran's nuclear program and it may be that Iran wants Hezbollah to keep its powder dry with those rockets in order to deter Israel taking out Iran's nuclear facility -- something that it has threatened to do over the years.

But at the same time, Hezbollah may see this as a golden opportunity. As an opportunity that may not come around in the future when Israel is being drawn very likely in on the ground in Gaza trying to deal with Hamas militants and, of course, trying to help those 199, it's not been confirmed, hostages that were taken by Hamas in that terrorist attack and taken into the Gaza Strip.

HUNT: Right.

GOTKINE: So with Israel, they will be hoping it gets bogged down in Gaza and it may be seen as an opportunity to attack Israel and perhaps also to create some tension between Israel and its allies in the region -- Kasie.

HUNT: Right.

So, Elliott, can you talk a little bit about the Saudis and how they're involved here because they obviously have their own tensions with Iran and they were about to, we think, sign a normalization pact with Israel?

GOTKINE: Right. And we saw Saudi -- the Saudis effectively normalize relations with the Iranians earlier this year, overseen by the Chinese. So that would, of course, have some concern. But even the Saudis were not keeping it a secret that they were -- they were inching towards some kind of normalization agreement with Israel.

I think we also need to bear in mind that what you may see Israel's allies in the region -- such as the Emirates and, potentially, the Saudis -- saying in public -- and I think that perhaps the condemnations of Israel will grow even among its allies as the civilian death toll rises in the Gaza Strip. What they say in public may not necessarily be the same as what is going on behind the scenes.

And ultimately, these countries, including the Saudis, will act in their own interest. And if they feel that ultimately, it is in their own interest to normalize with Israel, perhaps not now, perhaps slightly later than had initially been planned, then that is something that is still likely to happen.

But, no doubt, they will be in talks with the Americans. But I don't really see what diplomat leverage the Saudis --

HUNT: Right.

GOTKINE: -- have in this -- in this fight right now, Kasie.

HUNT: All right. Elliott Gotkine in London for us. Thank you very much for your time, sir. I really appreciate it.

And state police in Illinois have arrested a Chicago-area landlord after he allegedly stabbed a 6-year-old Muslim boy 26 times, killing him and seriously wounding his mother.


AHMED REHAB, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COUNCIL ON AMERICAN ISLAMIC RELATIONS: He was a lovely boy who loved his family, his friends. He loved soccer. He loved basketball. And he paid the price for the atmosphere of hate.


HUNT: Officials say 71-year-old Joseph Czuba faces multiple charges, including first-degree murder, attempted murder, and two counts of a hate crime.

The mother reportedly told her son's father that Czuba attacked both of them while yelling, quote, "You Muslims must die."

All right. A number of House Republicans are in talks to block Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan's path to the speakership but he is still pushing ahead, as of right now, for a floor vote tomorrow.


Listen to what one Republican had to say about bullying GOP holdouts into supporting Jordan.


REP. DAN CRENSHAW (R-TX): What I -- and what I would really recommend to Jordan's allies, too, is a lot of them have mounted this high- pressure campaign. They're going to -- they're going to whip up Twitter against the people who are against Jordan. That is the dumbest way to support Jordan, and I'm supporting Jordan. The dumbest thing you can do is to continue pissing off those people and entrench them.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in Mychael Schnell, congressional reporter at The Hill. Mychael, good morning. It's wonderful to have you here.

Crenshaw -- Dan Crenshaw there being pretty direct about it. There's also some reporting out from one of your Hill press corps colleagues about pressure from Sean Hannity on some of these members. This is getting pretty ugly.

How does this play out over the course of the next 24 hours?

MYCHAEL SCHNELL, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE HILL: Yeah. Look, Kasie, a lot of converging dynamics right here all set and focused on Tuesday when House Republicans are planning to bring Jim Jordan's nomination for speaker to the floor despite it being unclear that -- whether or not he has the votes.

Of course, last week, he beat his challenger, Austin Scott, in that internal election 124-81. But then, in a secondary vote, which was seen as a validation vote, asking those lawmakers would you support Jim Jordan if his nomination came to the floor. The vote was 152-55. So, of course, those 55 lawmakers saying that they will not support Jim Jordan on the floor keeps him very far away from being able to clinch the gavel on the House floor.

So as you asked what happens now, well, Kevin McCarthy said that over the weekend, Jim Jordan has been talking to lawmakers -- talking to these holdouts trying to see how he can get them on board. I think it's safe to say that will continue today and tomorrow.

But as you mentioned, there is this pressure campaign on some of those holdouts to flip and support Jim Jordan. And you saw Crenshaw say right there -- someone who supports Jim Jordan -- that this pressure campaign is just not the way to move forward.

But look, House leaders are planning to have that vote on Tuesday. Time is running out and Jordan remains far away from the 217 he's going to need on the House floor. So it looks like House Republicans are using any potential lever at their availability to try to get these holdouts on board.

HUNT: Right. Well, I mean, it does seem like -- I mean, this is one thing that Scalise didn't do, right, in his bid for speaker, is take it to the floor and dare people to vote against him. But that does seem to be the strategy that Jordan is pursuing here and it echoes what McCarthy did. And it really does seem like McCarthy is working on Jordan's behalf behind the scenes.

SCHNELL: Yeah. So, two things there.

First off, the strategy here, it seems to be, of Jordan's supporters is that bringing his nomination to the floor even when, right now, he remains far away from the 217 he needs, they think that could try to pressure some of these holdouts into actually supporting him.

Folks say that when the cameras are on and when the lights are bearing down on these lawmakers -- when they have to put their name on their vote -- that there's a possibility that they would then support Jim Jordan.

But look, when you talk about a number 55 -- I mean, he can only afford to lose four lawmakers. And that's assuming that everyone is in the chamber voting -- all Democrats vote for Hakeem Jeffries. So he's still very far away from where he needs to be on that vote count.

And you bring up another good point that this is what Kevin McCarthy did back in January. We'll remember that election took four days and 15 ballots. At the end of the day, six of those holdouts ended up voting present, which ultimately allowed Kevin McCarthy to get the gavel. The only difference there is that at the beginning of Kevin McCarthy's time on the floor there were about 20 holdouts and he was able to bring that down to six.

Right now, we're at 55, which is a much larger number. We'll see if that shrinks if Jim Jordan ultimately does bring it to the floor. But he's sort of starting at a -- beginning at a starting point that's as far back than Kevin McCarthy was.

HUNT: Yeah. All, of course, playing out while a war rages in Gaza and there's no end in sight to this fight to actually install a Speaker of the House and the U.S. government can function.

Mychael Schnell of The Hill. Thank you very much for starting us off on what promises to be a wild week here in D.C. I really appreciate it.

And President Biden says the two-state solution isn't dead. We're going to have live reaction from Israel up next.




SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Would you support Israeli occupation of Gaza at this point?

BIDEN: I think it'd be a big mistake.

PELLEY: Do you believe that Hamas must be eliminated entirely?

BIDEN: Yes, I do. But there needs to be a Palestinian Authority. There needs to be a path to a Palestinian state.


HUNT: That was President Biden suggesting that a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine is still possible.

Let's bring in Avi Mayer, editor-in-chief at the Jerusalem Post. Avi, it's wonderful to have you back on the show.

I just want to start there -- your reaction to what President Biden had to say.

AVI MAYER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, JERUSALEM POST (via Webex by Cisco): I think I'd sign on to everything the president said.

I think that Hamas does need to be eliminated. I think the massacre last weekend demonstrated that. If ever we thought that it was a pragmatic rational organization that could be reasoned with, we now know that it's an ISIS-like organization that just needs to be destroyed. And so, I think that's absolutely true.

I don't think there are many Israelis who, on the other hand, like the president said, have any desire to occupy the Gaza Strip. No one wants to administer that territory. No one wants to control the daily lives of two million Palestinians. So I think he's right on that as well.

And quite frankly, I think he's right about the prospect of a two- state solution. That's what many Israelis and many Palestinians want -- a two-state solution. Palestine and Israel living side-by-side. That's not what Hamas is about. Hamas exists solely to destroy Israel and to murder as many Jews as it possibly can, so that's not a factor.

The question is what do we do the day after Hamas and how do we get to a point where that peace process is possible?


HUNT: Avi, can I ask you about what the Egyptian president had to say over the weekend? He said that what Israelis are doing is amounting to collective punishment of people in Gaza. It was a bit of a diplomatic -- I don't know if you want to call it a warning shot exactly, but it was kind of a signal of -- to the international community about where they are here.

What do you read into that? What do you hear when they say that? And what do you have to say in response?

MAYER: I'm not trying to take those kind of statements very seriously. I think the president of Egypt and all the leaders in the region, and certainly those who are pragmatic and moderate, know the threat posed by Hamas. Know that Hamas has, for years, held the people of Gaza hostage and has used them as human shields in order to develop military and terrorist infrastructure in civilian areas.

So I don't know that I would put a great deal of weight on that. I think he has to say that for various internal reasons perhaps. But at the end of the day, he and Israel, and many other moderate states in the country -- in the region basically see the situation very similarly and know that Hamas needs to be eliminated as a terrorist force in this area.

HUNT: What do you think needs to be happening at the Rafah border crossing right now? I mean, what are the concerns that Israelis have around that? It seems like people are saying out loud that they want it to be open but it remains closed. Not 100 percent clear why. A little bit hard to understand.

What's your understanding of it?

MAYER: So I know there are conversations ongoing with the Egyptians to ensure that they are enabling Palestinian civilians to seek safety and shelter in the Sinai through the Rafah crossing. We don't know exactly why that hasn't happened yet. It seems as though the Egyptians are holding out for some concessions or something to sweeten the deal, which I think is terribly important. If you have a humanitarian situation on your hands you do whatever you can to get people to safety. That, right now, is the priority -- to ensure that Palestinian civilians are not caught in the line of fire. Israel has done whatever it can and continues to do whatever it can to

enable Palestinian civilians to vacate those areas that are being held by Hamas that are most entrenched in the northern part of the Gaza Strip -- to enable them to seek safety in various different places. There's been a humanitarian corridor that's been established. Time has been given for them to vacate. It's obviously a very difficult situation, which Israel has acknowledged.

As I said, we know that this is a difficult thing. Initially, the suggestion was that it could be done within 24 hours. It was clear pretty early on that wasn't possible. So Israel said we're going to extend this for as long as it takes to enable civilians to get out of this area and seek shelter.

HUNT: Right.

Avi, we're obviously waiting for this ground invasion, which seems like it could come at any moment. You, obviously, are knit into the fabric of your country. Hundreds of thousands of reservists have been called up. And for people who aren't familiar -- I mean, it's basically everyone in the country, right, serves in the military.

What's the feeling ahead of this? I mean, do people feel like it's imminent? It promises to be a very, very difficult operation, potentially with a lot of loss of life.

MAYER: I'm actually in southern Israel. I'm on my way down to the areas in which the troops are being assembled to get a sense of what's going on on the ground.

I can tell you that I have seen several places along the way in which the roads are lined with parked cars of reservists who have come -- reported to duty and are ready for the battle ahead. There has been a massive mobilization. By the way, not only of Army reservists but really the entire country to support them -- to support the residents of southern Israel who have been devastated over the past week after the massacre of last weekend.

We know that it will be difficult. We know that there will likely be Israeli casualties when we go in with ground forces. It's obviously easier for Israel to just carpet-bomb Gaza. Of course, it would never do that because it knows that would draw tremendous civilian casualties. So it will endanger its own soldiers in order to go in by foot and possibly sustain casualties. We know that lies ahead but that's what we know we need to do in order to ensure that Hamas is eliminated and the people of Israel can live in peace.

HUNT: All right, Avi Mayer. Thank you very much for being with us this morning. I really appreciate your time, sir. Stay safe.

MAYER: Thank you.

HUNT: And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is in Israel saying he would push forward an aid package for the Jewish state despite the chaos in Washington over the speakership. The Biden administration faces a key issue, of course -- the divide in

Congress over aid for both Israel and Ukraine. The president seems confident that they can get both done at the same time. Take a look.


PELLEY: Are the wars in Israel and Ukraine more than the United States can take on at the same time?

BIDEN: No. We're the United States of America, for God's sake. The most powerful nation in the history -- not in the world -- in the history of the world. The history of the world. We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defense.


HUNT: For God's sake.

Let's bring in Catherine Lucey, White House reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Catherine, good morning. Thank you very much for being here.

So, President Biden says OK, we're going to do both of these things at the same time. I mean, the reality is we're talking about money and advice; we're not talking about boots on the ground. But that said, getting the money out the door for both of these places at the same time is potentially tricky and right now it's impossible because there's no Speaker of the House.


How do you see this playing out?

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (via Webex by Cisco): That's right, Kasie. I mean, this will be hard with a functioning Congress, right?

HUNT: Yeah.

LUCEY: And at the moment, the president is not dealing with a functioning Congress. And he said in that interview that the dysfunction among Hill Republicans isn't helping.

I mean, the White House is working on this. Lawmakers were at the White House on Friday. The White House is talking about an aid package that would include Israel and Ukraine, and some other security challenges. And their thinking and their hope is that by bundling this all together it will be easier to get Ukraine -- aid for Ukraine, which Republicans, so far, have -- some of them have resisted.

But it's not clear -- one, again, the Congress needs to function. But it's also not clear if they can get support for both of these priorities.

And there are, I think it's important to note, divides and tensions within both parties, right? So in Congress, the Republicans are more united on aid for Israel but have divisions on supporting Ukraine. And Democrats are supportive, largely, of helping Ukraine but there are some tensions in their caucus about what to do with Israel.

And so it just -- it's very -- it's a very thorny problem for the president and we're going to see what plays out this week in terms of Congress actually getting going again.

HUNT: Right, yeah. I mean -- and look, a speaker -- the idea that a speaker Jim Jordan is going to put Ukraine aid on the floor no matter what form it takes -- I mean, maybe he'll -- maybe he'll ultimately be jammed. But I see trying -- the White House trying to work with a speaker Jim Jordan is going to be harder than trying to work with a speaker McCarthy.

Catherine, there's a new CNN poll that shows Americans are very sympathetic towards Israelis. Ninety-six percent expressing at least some sympathy and at least 70 percent see the Israeli government's response to these attacks as justified.

Obviously, the White House will probably -- publicly, they don't pay attention to polling but the reality is they're doing kind of research and looking into this all the time.

I mean, how much does public sentiment play into how they handle these things?

LUCEY: Well, the president has been very clear about -- he keeps using phrases like rock-solid support for Israel. I don't see that changing. He has been very vocal about that. And he sees support for Israel in the way that he sees support for Ukraine, right, as a -- really, as a foundational support of democracies and the importance of the U.S. supporting democracies.

But certainly, the White House -- this president is running for reelection. The White House is aware of how the public is thinking about these things and it's helpful for the president if this moment is supported. Foreign policy tests matter on the campaign trail, right? And so, this is something that they are going to be watching to see how people react to it as he starts and continues to campaign.

HUNT: Yeah. It was -- it was very interesting to see late last week former President George W. Bush talking a little bit about how public sentiment could change and how Biden might face tough going ahead. He obviously had some experience with that. So we'll see if that comes to pass.

Catherine Lucey of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you very much for being here, my friend. I hope you'll come back.

And the Palestinian --

LUCEY: Thanks so much, Kasie.

HUNT: Of course.

The Palestinian Authority president denouncing the Hamas terror attack, but not everyone in Gaza might have heard that. We're going to explain.



HUNT: You are looking at live pictures of Gaza City. Smoke rising over Gaza City. That's happening in just the past five minutes or so as the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip continues ahead of an expected ground invasion.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas making his first clear denunciation of the deadly Hamas attacks in Israel in a call with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, saying that those actions, quote, "Do not represent the Palestinian people." But later, the official Palestinian news agency scrubbed the direct reference to Hamas from President Abbas' remarks with no explanation.

CNN's Scott McLean is live in London with more. Scott, what's going on here?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kasie. Let me give you the play-by-play.

So, last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- the PA -- Palestinian Authority, by the way, runs things in the West Bank, not in Gaza. He put out a statement saying that look, we reject the killing of civilians on both sides. We reject mutilation of bodies. Saying that such practices violate international law, morals, and religion. That was last week's statement.

Yesterday, as you pointed out, he went even further than that being quite direct and quite clear when it comes to Hamas' actions in Israel, saying that the policies -- quote, "The policies and action of Hamas do not represent the Palestinian people." So this is a pretty in-your-face, pretty clear denunciation of what Hamas has done.

This morning, though, the write-up or the readout of that call with Nicolas Maduro in the official Palestinian press agency WAFA write-up was taken out. It was replaced with this. Quote, "No other party represents the Palestinian people except that of the PLO" -- the Palestinian Liberation Organization. That multi-party umbrella organization headed by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party in the West Bank claiming to represent the Palestinian people.


The PLO does not include Hamas. Hamas and the PLO have not seen eye to eye for some time. They really fell out back in 2007 when Hamas violently -- in violent clashes booted the PLO and the Fatah Party from Gaza, leaving them in control of only the West Bank.

But the bottom line, Kasie, is why this was taken out. We still don't know. A lot of question marks here.

HUNT: Indeed.

All right, Scott McLean. Thanks very much for your reporting. I really appreciate it.

And thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. I'm Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.