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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Today: Biden Departs on High-Stakes Trip to Israel; U.S. Sending Marine Rapid Response Force Toward Israel; Global Divisions on Display As Gaza Ground Offensive Looms. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2023 - 05:00   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good day to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Kasie Hunt. It is Tuesday, October 17, 5:00 a.m. here in Washington and noon in Israel where President Biden will be tomorrow on a high stakes trip to a warzone with several competing objectives.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: First, the president will reaffirm the United States solidarity with Israel, and our ironclad commitment to its security.


HUNT: The president will depart Washington today as he tries to prevent the crisis in Israel from spreading into a wider, regional conflict at the same time that he works to ease the humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announcing Monday that the U.S. and Israel will develop a plan to ensure aid from donor nations and groups will reach civilians in Gaza. At the moment, that is a major problem because right now, the Rafah crossing into Egypt which is currently the only route in or out of Gaza, it remains closed. There are four 30-foot missile craters that are still blocking the roadway along with cement slabs placed by Egypt.

And in Gaza right now, there is no electricity because of a lack of fuel and no water being pumped because of the lack of electricity. The World Health Organization warns that public health crisis in Gaza is imminent.

Secretary Blinken says the president will also work on securing the release of hostages held by Hamas. On Monday, Hamas released the first video that we've seen of the hostage, this woman, 20-year-old Mia Shem. CNN is not showing the video itself, but CNN's Anderson Cooper spoke to her family last night.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is all we want, just to get Mia back to us. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're begging the world to bring my baby home.


HUNT: All right. Elliott Gotkine is live for us this morning in London.

Elliott, good morning. Obviously, the president's travel always carries a lot of symbolic weight, but in moment is a very heavy one. How is this trip and the world going to view what he does next?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kasie, I suppose if the presence of two U.S. aircraft carriers, fighter jets and now 2,000 marines and sailors being dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean wasn't a loud enough message to the world and in particular Israel's foes that the United States has Israel's back, then the presence of the president himself ought to do the trick.

So I think that's the message to the world, particularly Israel's foes, particular Iran and its Hezbollah proxy in the south of Lebanon.

And he said this just a few days, didn't he, that he had one word for Israel's enemies or other groups seeking to exploit the current situation by escalating the conflict -- don't. And I think that we're going to see President Biden repeating that. So that's the message to the world.

The message to Israelis, Israeli -- Biden putting his money where his mouth, is to show that his support -- when he says the U.S.'s support for Israel is ironclad, he means it. So he will go there and I think that Israelis will be assured to see the president of the United States in Israel showing that he has got Israel's back and that the United States will always have Israel's back.

While he's there, of course, he will also be discussing the humanitarian situation and that will also show I would imagine he hopes that the U.S. is not blind to the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip right now. And I suppose finally, this is also a message to the American people in particular Jewish voters perhaps or voters who support Israel in the United States, that their vote, that having the Democrats and President Biden in charge in the United States means that the relationship with Israel will remain as it is.

And that would perhaps put page to the Republican claims that the Democrats are somehow softer on the Palestinians and do not support Israel in the same way that Republicans do -- Kasie.

HUNT: Sure. And look, Elliott, we know that Israel -- we expect Israel to send troops into Gaza to attack Hamas. There have been questions swirling about the timing of this, was it delayed? Why it might be delayed? Do you think the president's trip is going to affect the timing of this?

GOTKINE: I think the weather and intelligence and the situation on the ground is probably going to have more of an impact. And, in fact, we had an almost definitive denial by an IDF spokesman earlier saying that, no, that the president's visit will not delay or deter Israel from going in on the ground.

But we've been talking about this for days. Obviously, the Israelis are not going to give anything away. They still want to maintain some kind of element of surprise even if a ground incursion is imminent. But certainly, what the Israelis are saying right now is that President Biden's visit to Israel will not affect their plans for -- whether it is a ground envision or any other part of the war that it is currently engaged in with Hamas -- Kasie.


HUNT: Well, it would certainly be a statement a lot of people would read a lot into if they were to invade at the same time Biden was, you know, putting his boots on the ground there.

Elliott Gotkine, thank you very much for starting us off this morning. I really appreciate it.

And coming up here, thousands of U.S. marines and sailors are heading to the waters near Israel. We're going to give you more on what their orders are.

Plus, the House expected to gavel into session today for a noon floor vote to try to pick a new speaker.


HUNT: Welcome back.

The U.S. is escalating its show of force in the waters off the coast of Israel, sending in a marine rapid response force. Two thousand marines and sailors are on the move.

Let's bring in Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army Forces in Europe.

General, thanks very much for being with us this morning.

Can you help us understand the difference between -- we've sent two carrier groups now. Now, they're going to send, you know, a contingent of 2,000 marines to the region. What does that say?

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES (RET.), FORMER COMMANDER OF U.S. ARMY FORCES IN EUROPE: Well, these, Kasie, are prudent steps by the department of defense to get capabilities in place that will help deter Iran from expanding the war. But also in case there was a requirement to evacuate American citizens from Israel, the marines you talk about, they belong to the marine expeditionary unit that is typically afloat in these regions that would be there to help evacuate people or provide some sort of aid. So I think these are present steps by the department.

HUNT: What do the other preparations look like behind the scenes in terms of like what the Pentagon is doing at home with readiness units as we watch this unfold overseas? HODGES: So, you know, two carrier strike groups, that's an impressive

amount of combat power, but you need two carrier strike groups if you anticipate that somehow Iran made the mistake to launch anti-ship missile at a U.S. aircraft carrier, you have to have enough protection for the ships at hand. And so the requirement to be able to launch strikes against targets inside Iran or elsewhere, as well as maintaining a 24/7 combat air patrol over control over the carriers, it would require the aircraft from two strike groups.

So that's the reason for having two there. But that's a significant amount of capability. The Pentagon obviously is also delivering certain munitions that the president has agreed to provide to Israel. And at the same time the Pentagon has to keep -- is keeping in mind that we're supporting Ukraine. This is -- I think this is a two front war. Russia benefits more than anybody from this Hamas attack on Israel because it distracts and I think that these are connected via Iran, Russia's only real ally.

So the Pentagon I think is probably looking at this in a strategic way, how do you help Ukraine win, how do you make sure Israel is successful, and how do you make sure that Iran does not expand the conflict.

HUNT: Yeah, it is an interesting way to think about it, trying to get money out the door from Congress if they could pick a speaker of the House.

Let me ask you, sir, I mean, as the commander in Europe, you would have dealt with a lot of VIPs in your theater and we have the president visiting the region tomorrow. What impact will that have on strategic and tactical decisions that the IDF is making in firms of the timing of their incursion into Gaza?

HODGES: Yeah, the timing of the ground operation whenever it starts I think is going to be driven primarily by the intelligence that they are able to build up over the next few days. They are not just going to drive into Gaza. They understand that Hamas is hoping that they will do that, that Hamas will be waiting.

So, I think they are going to be very deliberate in how they do this. Obviously, they are very concerned about the 199 or so hostages that are there. So other than getting the hostages, there is no time pressure to hurry up and go.

So I think having the president come is a positive thing because it will demonstrate American commitment, but it also will remind everybody that the U.S. has strategic interests in helping to prevent this turning into a blood bath against innocent civilians. Of course, that's the opposite of what Hamas wants that. So I think the president's visit will signal support, restraint, and also I think, you know, that the president is human and he will come away from this understanding also exactly the situation.

I don't think -- now, I have to say that I don't imagine Israel would launch a ground operation while the president was there. I mean, it would not be a good visual and it wouldn't make sense. So again, I don't think that they are on the clock. They don't have to attack in the next couple of days. But we'll see.

HUNT: I think the word he might be looking for is provocative. I feel like that would be pretty provocative if they went in while Biden was on the ground there.

HODGES: Well, I'm just sure that the administration team is talking with Israeli government about this kind of thing, that the timing of a presidential visit especially to a zone like this is not going to be based on hope or good luck. So I imagine this is all factored in.

But main thing is Israelis are not going to go until the conditions are right. Because this is going to be a very challenging, costly offensive, whatever it looks like.


And they'll go when the conditions are right.

HUNT: All right. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, thanks very much for being with us, sir. I hope you'll come back.

HODGES: Kasie, thank you very much.

HUNT: All right. Meanwhile, Russia's Vladimir Putin is now in China for a face-to-face with Xi Jinping, where the two of them stand amid the global division over Israel and Hamas.


HUNT: With an Israeli ground offensive looming in Gaza, more than half a million Palestinians are fleeing southward.

But as Sam Kiley reports, international reaction to the carnage is the region has increasingly become more divisive.


A warning, this report does contain some very graphic video.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At stake, a widening war in the Middle East, a humanitarian horror and floods of refugees. The conundrum Israel faces is self-defense versus collective punishment. Still reeling from the October 7th Hamas attacks in which at least 1,400 people were killed, and most of them civilians, Israel's prime minister has pledged to destroy Hamas and called for international support.

He said just like the world united to destroy the Nazis and destroy ISIS, now the world must unite in order to defeat Hamas.

But at what cost?

The U.S. secretary of state embarked on a frantic round of talks with Israel ahead of a widely anticipated ground assault on Gaza.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: You know our deep commitment to Israel's right, indeed its obligation, to defend itself and to defend its people.

KILEY: But there's also been a warning from the White House.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.

KILEY: Hamas is blamed for mounting civilian casualties in Gaza by Israel and the U.K.'s foreign secretary.

JAMES CLEVERLY, UK FOREIGN SECRETARY: Of course, we want to minimize Palestinian casualties. We want to minimize Israeli casualties. We want everybody to respect civilians. But the real clear distinction is Israel trying to get civilians out of danger. Hamas are trying to put civilians into danger.

KILEY: Gaza has no power, no fresh water, it's besieged by Israel, and its Egyptian border sealed. Half its 2 million population has been told to leave the north of the enclave amid continued Israeli airstrikes.

More than half a million are on the move. Egypt's president said: I believe that the ongoing retaliation goes beyond the right of self- defense for Israel, and amounts to the collective punishment of the Gaza Strip. Egypt further insists that the Palestinians should not leave their territory and face permanent displacement.

China, meanwhile, is sending a special envoy to the region next week and calling for calm. As around the world, revulsion to Hamas' recent atrocities risks being eclipsed by protests against the operation in Gaza.

And along the Israel-Lebanon border, Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel have been skirmishing. Israel evacuated 28 villages along the front here in case of outright war. An invasion of Gaza could trigger just that. Once again in the Middle East, there's global division over what the problem is and fear of some of the solutions.

Sam Kiley, CNN.


HUNT: And Russian President Vladimir Putin is arriving in Beijing this morning ahead of an effected face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday. Both leaders have carefully sidestepped describing the Hamas attacks as terrorism.

Let's bring in CNN's Max Foster in London.

I think that's actually partly all you need to know about where these two leaders stand, Max. But the reality here, they are dealing with crises at home, or in the case of Vladimir Putin, abroad, in Ukraine. But obviously a war he is waging. Xi Jinping has the economic crisis on its hands. And there are obviously fears that this war could spread, involve Iran and potentially pull many powers into a wider conflict.

What are the leaders thinking at this point and how do you see the next turn of the screw if you will?

MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think both leaders are trying to broaden their influence across the Arab world. That is a broad picture we've seen developing over recent years. If you go way back, USSR, China, they had a lot of sympathy with Palestinians but they have been trying more recently to build diplomatic ties with Israel. So I think it's a broader strategy and a bit of that will come out today.

In terms of the war, they have been talking about humanitarian corridors. They have been talking about a ceasefire and peace talks. But -- and actually Russia presented this idea to the U.N. Security Council calling for a ceasefire. It was rejected though by the U.S., the U.K. and France because it didn't condemn Hamas.

And this is the issue that they will have getting involved in any sort of negotiation involving Palestinians and Israel until they condemn Hamas, Israel aren't going to want them involved because that's where they are.


And they are not actually frankly if you look at it, Kasie, in the mind for peace talks right now either.

So, it's going to be interesting to see what comes out of the meetings today. But it is difficult to imagine them being involved in any sort of negotiation.

HUNT: No, that's fair.

And how do you view the next thing we on the to being docket is President Biden visiting Israel on Wednesday as we wait to see when the Israelis are going to make this move in Gaza, the widely expected ground incursion. He's going to go first to Israel and then he will meet with leaders in the Arab world in Amman after that. What is -- what is the view from Europe especially -- I know you talk to a lot of European officials in terms of what this means for the West and the evolution of this conflict?

FOSTER: Well, you've got that China-Russia access, I mean, access. I mean, particularly China access trying to weaken American, Western power on world stage.

So I think this is a huge test for President Biden to show, that America is still dominant on the world stage. Blinken had this huge long meeting with the Israeli war cabinet. After that, he announced the Biden visit. There has to be something that Biden is ready to announce for his arrival there.

Let's see if that works and has a big impact. It's obviously going to be something around humanitarian aid and also having safe areas for civilians. If that works, I think that will reflect well on Biden on the global stage. If is it doesn't, it could be disastrous. This would be associated with whatever comes up.

But I think it is interesting -- I mean, certainly, Europeans are looking at it as a big test for western power on the global stage. I think for Biden as well, it is a big message to his allies, isn't it, in Europe that this is a really serious issue and we have to get involved and try to resolve it in what way we can.

HUNT: No, it's a very good point.

All right. Max Foster, thank you very much for being with us, as always, my friend. I really appreciate it.

All right. Just ahead here, President Biden set to make an extraordinary wartime visit as we were discussing to the Middle East. And Jim Jordan is staging House floor showdown today. Will he get enough votes to win the gavel?