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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

U.S. Defense Secretary in Israel to Press for Metrics Against Hamas; Trump Ramps Up Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric on Campaign Trail; Outrage Over Israeli Troops Mistaken Killing of 3 Hostages. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired December 18, 2023 - 05:00   ET



JOHN AVLON, ANCHOR, EARLY START: Good morning to our viewers in the USA and around the world, I'm John Avlon. It is Monday, December 18th, it's 5:00 a.m. here in New York, noon in Tel Aviv, where the U.S. Defense Secretary is scheduled to meet now with his Israeli counterpart.

Secretary Lloyd Austin's mission is to press Israeli officials on specific milestones for progress in Israel's war against Hamas, as civilian casualties climb. And here's Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen talking to "ABC' this Sunday.


SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): We do have unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties. We see very loose rules of engagement, way looser than anything the United States would exercise. We would not drop a 2,000-pound bomb on a refugee camp to target a Hamas commander.


AVLON: A senior defense official tells CNN that Austin will, quote, "want to hear very clear articulation of the Israeli self-assessment" today. That same official had a bit, Austin has confidence in the professionalism of the Israeli military. So he's there to ask questions and learn more about their plan.

Elliott Gotkine is live in London. Elliott, this is the second visit from a top Biden official aimed at emphasizing American expectations. Should that be read as a sign that the U.S. is concerned with Israel's progress?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: John, I don't think Israel -- I don't think the United States has shied away from expressing its concerns about the progress that Israel is making. We can see Yoav Gallant, the Israeli Defense Minister sitting alongside Secretary Austin right now in Tel Aviv, at the HaKirya; the Israeli Defense Ministry headquarters, which is where he went to straight from landing.

So the U.S. has already articulated its concerns, as you mentioned, Secretary Austin will be wanting some real specifics on the milestones and the metrics of Israel's war against Hamas to date. And to get a sense, I suppose of when Israel feels that the job, this part of the job will be done, and it can move on to a somewhat less intensive phase of the war against Hamas.

We'll also be pressing Israel to take more care about civilian casualties. One of the latest ones, an employee from the French consulate in Gaza was killed in an airstrike. That's according to the French Foreign Ministry, pressing Israel to take more care as far as civilians are concerned and pushing to get more humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip as well.

Kerem Shalom, the Israeli crossing into Gaza was opened for aid to go directly from Israel into the Gaza Strip on Sunday. That will be seen as a step in the right direction, but still falling far short of what is required in Gaza where the amount of aid going in is about half of what it was before October the 7th.

Obviously, the humanitarian situation much more dire right now. They'll also talk about regional issue, such as security for shipping in the Red Sea where shipping has come under attack from Iranian- backed Houthi rebels in Yemen looking to do what they can, not just to prevent any kind of blockade on shipping bound for Israel or related to Israel, but globally as well, to keep those shipping lanes open. That is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. To make sure there's no impact on global trade or on the global economy. John?

AVLON: The logistics of war. Elliott Gotkine, thank you very much. Now, to the campaign trail here in the U.S. where Donald Trump is reviving the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that fueled his candidacy in 2016. Trump telling crowds in New Hampshire and Nevada over the weekend that immigrants are, quote, "poisoning the blood of our country", and promising to carry out, quote, "the largest deportation operation in American history if re-elected."

Let's bring in "Axios"-CNN politics reporter Eugene Scott. Eugene, good to see you. Trump is laying out his plans for the second term immigration in the starkest terms yet. I want to play some of what he said over the weekend.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're poisoning the blood of our country. That's what they've done. They poisoned mental institutions and prisons all over the world, not just in South America, not just the three or four countries that we think about, but all over the world, they're coming into our country from Africa, from Asia, over the world.

It is only common sense that when I'm re-elected, we will begin -- and we have no choice, the largest deportation operation in America in history.


[05:05:00] We must use any and all resources needed to stop the invasion of our

country, including moving thousands of troops currently stationed overseas in countries that don't like us.


AVLON: Eugene, it seems like an escalation in terms of the actual plans. How does it compare with his initial pitch in 2016 to your ears?

EUGENE SCOTT, SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER, AXIOS: Well, it sounds like an escalation, but it is pretty consistent with what we received from the former president previously. Perhaps the fact that he is leaning into this talking point and this plan so early and so aggressively might be new.

And part of that is -- and shaped by the fact that he's in the lead, and he doesn't really have to worry about significant pushback from his competitors or losing people in the Republican Party base because he already has them.

AVLON: Yes, I will say, it's interesting to hear him all of a sudden mention Africa and Asia along with the fixation of the southern border. That does seem to be different, right?

SCOTT: It does seem to be different, but you have to remember, when he talked about the Muslim ban, that was a policy that impacted people of color, outside of the Latin American countries that we usually hear the president criticize. And so, we've also seen that immigration crisis become more global or at least --

AVLON: Sure --

SCOTT: Americans knowledge of it. And so, while people previously in 2016 may have been just paying attention to what was happening to the southern border, there are more eyes on what's happening around the world now.

AVLON: That's a great point. Eugene, before you go, I want to get your reaction, there's new polling we're seeing in New Hampshire showing Nikki Haley getting a boost in a leap for Granite State. How big a deal is this for her in the wake, of course, of the endorsement from Governor Chris Sununu?

SCOTT: Well, it's meaningful. I mean, we know that her campaign has been working very hard to gain traction, especially with some conservative voters in New Hampshire who are not necessarily on the Trump train, and to see that actually happening has to be encouraging for her team.

But as you noted, as that poll just showed, she's still significantly behind the former president. And whether or not she'll be able to make up that gap between now, you know, and the New Hampshire primary remains to be seen. But if, you know, history is any indication, it just doesn't seem likely. AVLON: Well, we're around five weeks out, obviously, open primary,

independent voters can participate. But I will -- it struck me that the Governor Sununu predicted a landslide for Nikki Haley. I'm assuming you're thinking that's a little premature, is that right?

SCOTT: Well, we don't have anything that will suggest right now that, that is what would happen. And that's the kind of response you would want from someone who would endorse you. And so, he's being very supportive, but he's also on the ground in ways that a lot of us in Washington are not.

And so, he's more familiar with those voters, the ones who helped get him to the governor's mansion, so, he could be right. But it will be a surprise for, I think, a lot of people including Nikki Haley if that's what actually happens.

AVLON: Well, you remember what the first George Bush said, the big Mo, that's what matters the most in politics. Eugene Scott of "Axios", great to see you, thanks a lot.

SCOTT: Me too as well.

AVLON: All right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now under intense pressure after the mistaken killing of three hostages. What those hostages families are demanding ahead. Plus, Senate negotiators still do not have a deal on border security as the holiday recess nears. What lawmakers are saying about the chances of reaching one before the break. That's all coming up.



AVLON: An investigation is now underway into the deaths of three Israeli hostages mistakenly shot and killed by Israeli forces on Friday. The incident has sparked outrage across Israel and ramped up domestic pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. CNN's Alex Marquardt has more from Tel Aviv.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (on camera): In the wake of the killing of the three Israeli hostages on Friday by Israeli forces, there has been widespread anger and response to that tragic incident. Back-to-back protests, rallies, marches on Friday and Saturday night. CNN spoke with a number of the relatives of the hostages who say that now the Netanyahu government needs to put a plan on the table to get those hostages back.

They say they're also worried about the safety of the hostages, and that in the past, the bombings and the assaults by Israeli forces on Hamas militants have come dangerously close to those hostages. At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu is insisting that it is the military pressure on Hamas that will get the militant group to come back to the negotiating table and release more hostages. Here's a little bit more of what he had to say on Saturday night. Take a listen.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER, ISRAEL (through translator): Without the military pressure, we would not have succeeded in creating an outline that led to the release of 110 hostages. And only continued military pressure will lead to the releases of all of our hostages. My directive to the negotiating team is based on this pressure, without which we would have nothing.

MARQUARDT: Netanyahu talking there about his instructions to the negotiating team, another indication that there may be movement on that front, the discussions about the hostages. We've also confirmed that there was a meeting between the head of Mossad, David Barnea and the Qatari Prime Minister of Qatar has been one of the main mediators in these discussions. They speak directly with Hamas.


AVLON: That was Alex Marquardt from Tel Aviv. Now, let's bring in CNN's Max Foster live in London. Max, good to see you.


AVLON: Events over the past few days, the IDF shooting of the three hostages, now the arrival of Defense Secretary Austin are raising pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to show progress in the war, to save the hostages and to save Gaza civilians. What are Netanyahu's options right now?


FOSTER: Well, there is little support, obviously, for the war in response to what happened on October the 7th. But there's a huge amount of pressure coming from these two places. The one that Alex was talking about there, people within Israel concerned that this massive military campaign is making the hostages more vulnerable.

And we saw that with these mistaken identity and those hostages that died. Also internationally, huge concerns among Israel's allies that too many civilians are dying. So these are the two elements of pressure. But Netanyahu is committed to destroying Hamas as long as he continues with this war, is in charge of a war cabinet, then it does put off a day of reckoning which will ultimately come at some point, John, which is, where he has to explain how October the 7th happened on his watch.

AVLON: Yes, the day of reckoning, indeed. Now, the mission as you point out is to destroy Hamas. But one of the important things in war is to think about what happens next. And the U.S. is making moves to bring the Palestinian authority into preparations for the end of the war in Gaza to potentially take over after Hamas is smashed. And Netanyahu said, that's absolutely not to that particular plan. Doesn't it put the U.S. and Israel on a collision course whatever they may be saying?

FOSTER: Absolutely, and with all the allies and all the European allies as well. Most of the allies want the two-state solution. They want an independent Palestinian state and some sort of process that leads to that, and Netanyahu, who is absolutely against that, to the extent where he was actually -- we learned recently propping up Hamas in Gaza to provide a counterbalance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Most of the allies see the Palestinian Authority as the best route for running and governing a Palestinian state. And Netanyahu doesn't want that. It's a massive collision course, and I'm sure will be coming up in the meetings today.

AVLON: Yes, I'm sure it will. But how do you see that being resolved? Because there's -- you know, if he doesn't want the Palestinian Authority monitoring, and he's -- you know, the Hamas backing didn't work out terribly well. What's the alternative option he's going to put forward?

FOSTER: Or Biden has already said, hasn't he? A different government is got to be less right-wing and more in support of a two-state solution. So, he's under pressure, Netanyahu, to keep his own internal support, a lot of that comes from the right, I don't know how it happens.

It's the U.S. and allies putting pressure on the wider government, the wider parliament to try to come out with a government that does actually believe in a two-state solution. It's difficult to see Netanyahu as part of that on his current way of thinking.

AVLON: And who are considered Netanyahu's prime alternatives inside Israel right now. Is it Benny Gantz? Is it Yair Lapid?

FOSTER: Benny Gantz is seen as the main opposition alternative, and he's been accused, Netanyahu, of playing politics during the war to undermine Benny Gantz. So, a huge amount of politics at play here, looking ahead to what happens after this war. And Israelis have to decide what sort of government they want, and what sort of solution they see in the future.

AVLON: Well, that's the essential thing, is to be planning for the future while dealing with the pressures of the present. It's an unenviable task, but the world is watching. Max Foster, thanks a lot --

FOSTER: Thanks, John --

AVLON: Good to see you, my friend. All right, a powerful storm that has just struck Florida is now soaking up the east coast where officials are warning about potential travel disruptions and blackouts. That's ahead.



AVLON: We've got your quick hits across America now. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is suspending operations at two Texas international railway crossing bridges today. One in Eagle Pass and the other in El Paso. Officials say it's due to a migrant surge being driven by misinformation from criminal cartels.

And in Florida, the GOP has voted to censure Florida Party Chairman Christian Ziegler as he faces a sexual assault probe. He's also been stripped of his authority and his salary has been cut to $1 a year. Then Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will lie in repose and be remembered during a private ceremony at the court this morning. Members of the public are invited to pay their respects to this pioneering justice afterwards.

All right, a powerful storm that hit Florida this weekend is now bearing down on the east coast, threatening floods, dangerous surf and power outages. The weather service is warning that travel in portions of southern Connecticut, southeastern New York and Boston will be difficult this morning. So, let's go to meteorologist Derek Van Dam for the latest. Derek, what are we going to see?

DEREK VAN DAM, METEOROLOGIST: All right, it is a difficult start to the work-week across the northeast, and in particular, some of the most populated areas of the east coast. Listen up, if you're in New York City, this is going to be a tough morning commute.

And let me just show you what it looks like downtown, this is Times Square in New York City. The radar lighting up like a Christmas tree right now, but not in the way that we want to see, right? So, what we're concerned about at the moment and the weather prediction center has highlighted this, there's a corridor of very heavy rain that's starting to form basically from the Delmarva Peninsula through Long Island into southern sections of Connecticut including New York.

The potential here for 2 to 3 inches per hour explicitly noted within this forecast discussion that we read from the National Weather Service. So, we've already had saturated grounds from the overnight rain. But another band of precipitation is moving into this region, the Bronx, New York City, the outer suburbs as well.


This is an area we're going to keep a close eye on, for the potential of flooding. All in all, we have 58 million Americans under flash- flood alerts, including warnings for some locations into Maryland, and let's travel in to South Carolina where we saw the brunt of the heavy rain overnight. Some locations receiving over 10 inches of rain, nearing a foot of rain in Georgetown, South Carolina, and that's where we had some pretty impressive flooding taking place.

How much more rain is to come? Well, that's a good question because locally, heavier bands could create a 2 to 3-inch swath of rain in and around New York City, the Long Island region, the Islip region and across the northeast and to northern New England. That's an area that we could experience another 6 inches of rain before the storm finally moves up.

But looking into Charleston, South Carolina, it wasn't only the heavy rainfall trying to drain out of the Harbor, it was also the surge point being pushed in from the Atlantic Ocean and the strong winds that are associated with this. In fact, into Charleston Harbor, this is interesting, they set the highest gauge level at the Harbor for a non-tropical storm event.

The fourth highest gauge-level ever recorded in Charleston Harbor. So, right now, there was a peak at 9.86 feet, there was flooding downtown, again, that was a combination of inland flooding and the surge component to this, working together, not allowing for that water to drain out of the Harbor appropriately.

Now, into Florida, it was a rough weekend as well, you can see the wind associated with it with the palm trees swinging back and forth. There were gusts, tropical storm force, and they will continue along the coastal regions before the storm exits by later tonight. Peak wind gusts, West Palm Beach, 61 miles per hour yesterday, this is a significant storm.

We can't forget about the snow impacts to this as well, along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Interior across the Midwest, check this out, down-wind of the Great Lakes could receive anywhere from 3 to 6 inches of additional snowfall on the ground.

Looking at this extremely busy forecast radar. John, we've got an active start to the week, and this is going to really set the tone for the travel plans as we head into the busy holiday season.

AVLON: You're not kidding, I mean, flash-flood warning --

VAN DAM: Yes --

AVLON: And more than 50 million Americans flooding in Charleston and 2 to 3 inches here in New York. It is wet and windy. Derek Van Dam --

VAN DAM: Right --

AVLON: Thank you.


AVLON: All right, the IDF says it has discovered the biggest Hamas tunnel in all of Gaza. Why concerns are growing about Israel's new attack tunnel plan, ahead.