Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Anger Erupts Across Middle East Over Gaza Hospital Blast As Biden Arrives In Israel; Biden To Speak With Abbas and El-Sisi On Flight Home From Israel; Today: Jim Jordan Faces Second Round Of Voting For Speaker. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 18, 2023 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thank you for getting up early with us this morning. I'm Kasie Hunt. It is 5:30 on the dot here in Washington; 12:30 p.m. in Israel.

A short time ago we heard from President Biden for the first time about that blast at a Gaza hospital that officials there say killed hundreds of people. The president is in Israel. He is currently sitting down for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And he said he believes that Islamic militants were behind the explosion.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday. And based on what I've seen it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you, but there's a lot of people out there not sure. So we've got to overcome a lot of things.


HUNT: So the president was apparently referring to evidence that the Israeli military says proves the explosion originated with an Islamic Jihad rocket that was misfired and that set the hospital on fire.

The blast at the hospital and the horrific civilian casualties have triggered huge protests across the Arab world.

CNN's Becky Anderson is live in Tel Aviv. Becky, the president's remark -- he said that the blast was caused by, quote, "the other team." He was sitting across from Netanyahu so he meant Gaza militants. This does seem to put the U.S. as saying we believe one side specifically.

What does this mean for the diplomatic mission he's on going forward?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR AND MANAGING EDITOR, CNN ABU DHABI: Yeah, let's just be quite clear. Authorities in Gaza absolutely put the blame squarely on the IDF and strikes by Israel. I think -- you know, this puts us in a very odd situation here. I

mean, it's not clear what the U.S. president's objectives were in coming to Israel nor what success would look like. But clearly, if you call this a mission, to a certain extent, that mission -- that trip certainly framed in a slightly different way in the hours that President Biden was on Air Force One flying here when the news came of that horrific, catastrophic blast in the hospital which has killed hundreds.

And we have seen very swift regional reaction. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the P.A. (the Palestine Authority), Iraq here condemning Israel squarely and placing the blame for this attack on the IDF.

And I just want to read a statement for our viewers from Jordan's King Abdullah. And let's remember that the countries I am quoting here are, sort of, clear friends or allies of the United States at this point, and particularly Jordan. King Abdullah calling the strike "a heinous massacre committed by Israel today against innocent injured and sick civilians who were receiving treatment."

Now, I have to be clear that statement came out in the wake of this blast. It came out before the evidence was presented by the IDF as to why it wasn't their responsibility and why it was the responsibility of Islamic Jihad, according to Israeli Forces.

But similar words echoed by Saudi Arabia, and let me just read you what the Foreign Ministry has said there. "The kingdom condemns in the strongest terms the heinous crime committed by the Israeli occupation forces," calling it -- and I quote here -- "a flagrant violation of all international laws and norms, including international humanitarian law."

And what's really important about these statements that we are seeing -- these are erstwhile friends and allies of the United States.

Saudi Arabia -- the country that was reportedly only months away from normalizing relations with Israel at the behest of the United States. This normalization of relations with Israel as an opportunity for a new era in the Middle East. That squarely, of course, as a pillar for the Biden administration's Middle East policy. I have to say it was certainly a pillar of the former presidency under Donald Trump as well.

HUNT: Right.

ANDERSON: But all bets are off at present from these friends and allies of the United States, so let me explain exactly why. In Jordan, in Iraq, in Ramallah overnight, you are seeing thousands of people on the streets. These are national security issues now for these countries. Protests that they didn't want to see. A conflict --

HUNT: Right.

ANDERSON: -- which is spreading onto their streets outside of Gaza. And this is what they've been warning of for a long time. It's been months in the making -- these warnings about what might go on in Ramallah, for example, the West Bank. These are warnings coming from this region and now you are seeing evidence of it and it is extremely concerning to these leaders.

You're not seeing these sort of protests on the streets of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. You wouldn't expect to see but you are seeing a lot of complaints by those who support the --

HUNT: Right.

ANDERSON: -- Palestinians.

So this is -- to a certain extent, the region is saying this is getting out of hand, Kasie.

HUNT: Right.

ANDERSON: They want to see what happens next and they will be very mindful of what the president does here.

HUNT: Right. And we were showing everybody Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Jordan. It's across the region.

Becky Anderson, thank you very much for your reporting as always.

President Biden was planning to meet in person with the King of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority President Abbas, and Egyptian President El-Sisi before he came home, but that was before the hospital blast. Instead, Biden plans to speak with Abbas and El-Sisi on the flight home.

CNN's Nada Bashir live in Amman, Jordan with more. Nada, of course, is there in anticipation of what this was supposed to -- what this was supposed to be. But as Becky was just outlining, the domestic politics in many of these countries really made it impossible for them to go ahead with this meeting with President Biden.

Nada, walk us through more of the reasoning here.

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Well look, I cannot understate really how significant the popular pressure is across the Middle East, particularly here in Jordan where around 50 percent of the population is either Palestinian or of Palestinian descent.

And we've seen those large-scale protests taking place, particularly last night where we saw that outpouring of outrage and condemnation from people here in Amman heading towards the Israeli Embassy. Some protesters even attempting to storm the Israeli Embassy.

There is a real strong feeling of support for the Palestinian cause -- for the Palestinians inside Gaza who have been under Israeli airstrikes for more than a week now. And that pressure is certainly felt by Arab leaders, not least here in Jordan by the Jordanian monarchy.

Now, of course, that meeting was set to take place today -- the first time we have seen all four leaders gathered together. President El- Sisi of Egypt, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, King Abdullah, and, of course, U.S. President Joe Biden all key players in any prospect for some kind of peace agreement if there were to be one. Of course, now this has raised concerns that this could mark an escalation in the tensions beyond the Palestinian territories and Israel.

Now, of course, as we heard last night, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority returned back to Ramallah calling for an urgent meeting of the Palestinian leadership. We know President Biden will be speaking to Abbas, but as things stand now the Jordanian government says they do not see their international partners as being on the same page when it comes to their focus on ensuring that there is a solution to bringing this war to an end and bringing some respite relief to Palestinians besieged in the Gaza Strip.

HUNT: All right, Nada Bashir in Jordan for us. Thank you very much for that report.

All right, let's come back to Washington now and bring in Margaret Talev. She's a senior contributor at Axios and the director of Syracuse University's Democracy, Journalism, and Citizenship Institute. Margaret, good morning.


HUNT: You, of course, have covered the White House over the course of your many, many years here. This is one of the more complicated trips I've ever seen a president undertake overseas.

And obviously, the incident at the Gaza hospital where you've got, on the one hand, the Palestinians saying -- the Palestinian Health Authority and Hamas saying hundreds have been killed in a blast caused by the IDF. You have the IDF presenting evidence they say shows no, we didn't do this -- we couldn't have done this. And also adding there's another militant group, the Islamic Jihad, that we have intelligence that they misfired a rocket.

Now you've got the president coming in there and saying OK -- to Benjamin Netanyahu -- we think the other team did this. Now, this is a president that sometimes speaks off the cuff. Sometimes the aides have to clean up after him.

What was your takeaway from how he presented what seems to be an official U.S. take on this catastrophe?

TALEV: Kasie, it certainly did, and the phraseology that he used was actually sort of jarring.

HUNT: Yeah.

TALEV: And --

HUNT: Agreed. TALEV: -- he -- I think the U.S. government is going to hope that what he said ends up being correct. This just shows how fraught the situation is.


They literally had a game-time decision on the ground yesterday, which was do we take off, because it became obvious that before he even landed everything was going to change on the ground and he was going to be coming into an extremely uncertain situation.

So when a president makes a decision like this to travel to another country in the middle of a conflict or, in this case, a war, he's trying to do two things. He's trying to show solidarity with the Israelis as an ally about their national security.

But he's also trying to calm the situation -- to have a positive effect. And to be able to have conversations with Arab allies -- Jordan, Egypt, and, of course, discussions with the Palestinian Authority that would be fruitful or productive. And that was called off before the trip even got started because of this horrific situation.

And so, I think in a situation like this where words matter and precision of language matters it would be challenging for any president. It's going to be an incredibly tough test for President Biden and it's also dangerous from a security perspective. So he is really walking a tightrope.

HUNT: Yeah, it is a tightrope.

I mean, you're right to point out that -- and that's an interesting kind of background about them having to decide hey, are we actually going to take off on Air Force One. That, in many ways, sends a signal that echoes or underscores the remarks that he made that OK, we believe -- we're still going to go ahead and do this even though, clearly, something very terrible has happened that is going to ignite the world. We're going to stick with Israel here.

That said, those words -- I mean, I've been in situations with presidential candidates in a pool, and their words ripple across the world extraordinarily fast, which is obviously what we're seeing here.

Margaret, stick with me. I want to get you to weigh in on our other big story, which is the significant development here in American domestic politics. The House remains without a speaker.


REP. PATRICK MCHENRY (R-NC), SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE: No person having received a majority, the whole number of votes cast by surname, a speaker has not been elected.


HUNT: So if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That is the strategy that Rep. Jim Jordan is going to take on after he lost his first speaker -- vote for speaker on Tuesday. Jordan is trying to project optimism and a second vote is set for 11:00 a.m. today.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): We're going to keep going. I've had great conversations, great discussions with our colleagues and, frankly, no one -- no one in our conference wants to see any type of coalition government with Democrats. So we're going to keep working and we're going to get to the votes.


HUNT: So the need to lock down the required 217 votes is something that the previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is quite well aware of.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Jordan has just as many votes as I had on the first round. I think the difference here, too, is we have rules so that we can sit down and talk to the other members and be able to move forward.


HUNT: So House Republicans are hoping it won't take 15 rounds of voting to name a speaker. That's how long it took in January for McCarthy. But Jordan has a steep hill to climb. These are the 20 Republicans who voted against him on Tuesday.

Margaret Talev is back with us. Margaret, the reality is there are more faces on that graphic than Jordan's team expected there to be.


HUNT: And as this has evolved over the course of the past 12 hours or so it does seem as though momentum is actually leaning away from Jordan, not to him. Conversations I'm having indicate there's more discussion of whether they need to give Patrick McHenry temporary powers. Jordan is pushing ahead anyway with this vote that's going to be set for 11:00 a.m. We'll probably see it actually play out at 11:30-11:40 this morning.

How do you -- what do you think is next for him?

TALEV: Well, I mean, wow -- and the conversation we were just having shows why this matters, right? When you've got now chaos in the Middle East it's really important for the U.S. to be able to make decisions not just about funding but about military posture, about policy. The House is really hobbled until either this is resolved or some kind of a temporary speaker arrangement is locked in.

I think, for Jordan, one of the things he had working in his favor, potentially, was that increased pressure just to have a leadership decision made could have helped him. But look, being that many votes behind -- in the state of New York

alone, there are enough Republican moderates who feel that they could lose their jobs if Jim Jordan becomes the speaker the next time they face voters at the ballot. That alone could be enough to hobble him.

Then you have some of these other folks around the country who were just not comfortable with his record. Not comfortable with his alliance with Donald Trump. Not comfortable with his failure to declare Joe Biden decisively the winner of the election.


There are enough holdouts that unless something magical happens in the next few hours for him, I think it's going to be very tough. And I think the Patrick McHenry option that you're alluding to has been out there for days on the sidelines. But all of these contenders thinking well, let's see if we can just get this done the normal way. And if -- you know, if they can't, they're going to need to make another decision first.

I think Jordan thinking that perhaps his longtime alliance with Trump -- a lot of Republicans desire not to anger Trump -- could help get him over the line.

HUNT: Right.

TALEV: But at this moment, at this hour, it -- he doesn't appear to have enough momentum to close that gap.

HUNT: Yeah. You say they want to get it done the normal way. I think we should also not lose sight of the fact that this entire thing is completely -- TALEV: It's not normal.

HUNT: -- abnormal for where we are.

But I want to just underscore one of the early points you made because I think it's easy to lose sight of it. The message that many of these -- you mentioned the New York delegation. They are the majority-makers in the Republican Conference. They are the people that Republicans need them to hold their seats if they want to actually have the opportunity to run the House of Representatives. They are sending a message that if we put Jim Jordan in charge of this chamber it is going to be a problem for us. We might lose the majority -- no?

TALEV: Well, that's where the rubber meets the road. You've got a very strong base in the Republican Party and it's really empowered the right flank, the Freedom Caucus. But in the end, the majority is so bare -- the House GOP majority is such a bare one that unless they can hold that coalition together they really can't afford to lose more seats come next November or they lose control of the chamber.

And so, that's always been the tension but it has come into very clear focus in the midst of this extremely drawn-out fight to lead the House. HUNT: Yeah, it really has. And let's not forget that the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when she was in charge, had a similar majority and did not face any of these issues. It really is about the division inside the Republican Party.

Margaret Talev, thank you very much for being here with us this morning. I really appreciate it.

TALEV: Thanks, Kasie.

HUNT: And President Biden is huddling with Israeli cabinet members in Tel Aviv at this hour. The tough questions that he's asking as a friend, he says, next.



HUNT: Welcome back.

This morning, President Biden is in Israel on the ground for a high- stakes visit. His meetings are already underway. He met face-to-face with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a short time ago.


BIDEN: Israel, as they respond to these attacks, it seems to me that they have to continue to ensure that you have what you need to defend yourselves. And we're going to make sure that occurs.


HUNT: Those remarks at the beginning of his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, which is still going on. He's expected to make more remarks soon and also meet with an expanded Israeli war cabinet.

Let's bring in Joel Rubin, former deputy assistant Secretary of State for legislative affairs in the Obama administration. He's also currently a Democratic Congress -- candidate for Congress in Maryland.

Joel, this is an incredibly highly consequential visit for the president. The reality is this strike occurred at this hospital in Gaza. The Palestinians immediately said that it was an IDF strike. The IDF has since disputed that. Protests have broken out across the Arab world. There obviously were questions should the president take off or should he not? He did -- he went to Israel.

He said that he believes it seems that it was caused by, in his words, the other team. He said that to Netanyahu. So he's ascribing this strike to Islamic militants.

The situation is incredibly politically explosive. You've worked -- you've been in rooms where some of these kinds of things have unfolded. What are the conversations like right now?


And this is incredibly gutsy of the president to be going there right now and the dynamics in the room are certainly going to be impacted by what just took place overnight. And I think in many ways, it's going to reinforce the importance of the president's trip.

You know, he's there to show Israelis that he has their back. The United States stands with Israel. He's also there to carry a message that humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians is crucial. That there needs to be protection of civilians.

And that's a message that he has a lot of credibility now to provide because of his support for Israel in such a strong manner. Across the board in Israel, there's a ton -- a significant amount of gratitude to him for that. So he can carry that message.

The other big issue, of course, is the hostages -- the 13 Americans. The almost 200 hostages overall. That's a high priority for him. And so, clearly, his being there demonstrates directly how important it is to get that taken care of safely.

HUNT: Let's talk about the humanitarian situation in Gaza for a moment. Obviously, we've been focused on the hospital.


HUNT: When that happened the leader of Amman, Jordan -- the king canceled what was supposed to be a second day for the president to meet with Arab leaders after he went to Israel. The point of that was supposed to be -- and the White House was telegraphing before that hey, we'd agreed to do this because we also want to demonstrate and we got a commitment that humanitarian aid would go into Gaza to help the civilians who are not associated with or supportive of Hamas. They need us.

Obviously, that was scrapped. And that, I think, presents a real challenge as well for the president.

RUBIN: It really does, Kasie. Look, our allies -- Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority -- these are frontline states right now dealing with the impact of the strike. But they also do have a moral obligation to support the Palestinians who are in a conflict zone. And getting the aid in -- this is a dance that now has been taken up to a week where Sec. Blinken has been working with these countries trying to find a way to open up the gates and let the aid in.

And then, of course, the Israelis, as well, have finally turned on the water after President Biden pushed and asked for them to do that as well.

But Jordan -- the king is under deep pressure politically at home. There are a majority of Palestinians in Jordan.

But all of that said and done, there has to be a way for them to provide support for the Palestinian people in Gaza for survival purposes. But Israel is going to mount a ground offensive and if the Palestinian people are not protected in the front it's only going to get more desperate once that offensive starts.

HUNT: Right. And, of course, the backdrop here, chaos in Washington. The administration is preparing --

RUBIN: Yeah.

HUNT: -- a request for aid to Israel but there's still no Speaker of the House.


RUBIN: No speaker, meaning no assistance to the Israeli military, no additional American assistance to the Palestinians for humanitarian aid, and frankly, a sign of dysfunction at the worst possible time. We can't have a failing government and right now we do.

We don't have the ability in the case of moving appropriations bills to get those through the floor and through the Senate, and then onto the president's desk. And this doesn't look like it has an end date either.

So it really undermines the president on his trip overseas for the leaders he's meeting with to know that back at home there's chaos and disarray, and that's a really weak hand for the United States when we're trying to bring our allies together right now on this critical issue.

HUNT: Yeah. It's a stunning reality and it's one that has conversations on the Hill increasing around how to figure out how to empower the temporary speaker, Patrick McHenry. We'll see what happens there.

Joel Rubin, thanks very much for your time this morning.

RUBIN: Thanks, Kasie.

HUNT: I really appreciate it.

President Biden is in Israel after that Gaza hospital blast killed hundreds of people. He is expected to speak soon. We'll bring you that live. Don't go anywhere.