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CNN LARRY KING LIVE

Brink of War?

Aired July 13, 2006 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Tonight, bombs and rockets fly between Israel and Lebanon. Beirut International Airport is shut down, its fuel depot is in flames. Rockets fired from Lebanon hit Haifa in northern Israel. Can President Bush stop the escalating violence? Or, will the United States get drawn into yet another war? And could it involve Iran and Syria?
From Jerusalem and the Israeli-Lebanon border to Gaza and Washington, we've got all the latest with the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors, former Mid East peace negotiator George Mitchell and lots more next on LARRY KING LIVE.

What a day, what a night. Let me introduce the panel. They'll be with us throughout the program and it will be going for various breaks to various people in and around the area.

The panel to be with us all the way, in Northeast Harbor, Maine is George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority Leader, international peace negotiator.

In Jerusalem is Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

In Washington, Robin Wright of the Washington Post.

And, also in Washington, Hisham Melham, the Washington Bureau Chief for As-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper published in Beirut.

We also have correspondents on the scene. Let's begin with Alessio Vinci, the CNN Correspondent in Beirut. What's the latest right there Alessio?

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Larry.

Well, the latest is that the Lebanese capital of Beirut at this time is under attack by Israeli warplanes. Within the last few minutes we've heard a series of loud explosions and the planes flying overhead.

And we understand that the targets at this time are the southern suburbs of Beirut, predominantly inhabited and populated by Muslims and, of course, that's also where the Hezbollah, the militia group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel has its headquarters.

And we understand also its leader Hassan Nasrallah also works and lives there. We understand that this, of course, should be or could be a retaliatory attack from Israel in response to the rockets fired earlier today by -- from Lebanon into northern Israel and in particular against the city, the port city of Haifa.

Throughout the day and at dawn earlier today the Israeli Air Force had dropped leaflets in that part of the city in the outskirts of Beirut warning civilians to stay away from Hezbollah-controlled buildings, basically indicating that it was going to go ahead and target that particular area of Beirut.

KING: Thanks, Alessio.

VINCI: Larry, back to you.

KING: Let's check in with John Vause at the northern Israel- Lebanon border. What's happening there, John?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, actually, Larry, right now I'm in the city of Haifa, the city which was hit by two of those Hezbollah rockets according to the Israeli military.

And tonight, the Israeli military is warning residents here to stay close to their safe rooms and bomb shelters. The Israeli military still trying to work out precisely what type of rockets were fired by Hezbollah into this city of 300,000 people.

The Israeli government says the attack here is a dangerous escalation, a major escalation. Essentially now 300,000 Israelis could be in the firing line of those Hezbollah rockets, Katyusha rockets, which Hezbollah have been firing for most of the day have a range of about 12 miles.

Now, Haifa is about 30 miles away from the Lebanon border. It could indicate that Hezbollah has managed to improve the range of its arsenal or it could have an entirely new missile as well. There's a great deal of unease here tonight -- Larry.

KING: Thank you, John.

Let's go to Gaza City, Ben Wedeman, our CNN Cairo Bureau Chief, what's the story there?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CAIRO BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, Larry, it's been a night of sporadic Israeli strikes in Gaza. There's one report of a strike on an office used by Hamas members of parliament and another south of here, a bridge, linking the northern and southern parts of the Gaza Strip was hit by an Israeli missile.

But overall the level of military activity, Israeli military activity in Gaza has been dramatically reduced since the troubles began in Lebanon. Our indications are that Israel simply doesn't want to deal with two hot fronts simultaneously.

Also it appears on the side of the militants they've decided to calm things down a bit. We're hearing word from Cairo that the Egyptians are reviving their mediation efforts to try to win the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal who was captured by militants outside Gaza on June 25th -- Larry.

KING: That's encouraging.

Now let's go to George Mitchell in Maine, the former Senate Majority Leader, international peace negotiator, what's going to happen here, George?

GEORGE MITCHELL, FORMER SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, of course, we all have to hope that everyone will take a step back and reduce the escalation, reverse the escalation that's been going on. I don't think anyone's interests are served by a wider conflict and I think it's very clear that there's going to have to be determined leadership by the United States with the assistance and support of Europeans and others to launch a major new intervention to try to deescalate the situation and get the parties back to meaningful negotiations.

KING: Ambassador Kurtzer, Hezbollah is not the Lebanese government. Why is Israel retaliating against the government?

DANIEL KURTZER, FMR. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL: Well, the government decided here immediately that it was going to hold the Lebanese government responsible for what happened on the northern border. Israel has been demanding for the past six years that the government of Lebanon exercise its sovereignty throughout the south and this is an opportunity or an occasion for Israel to repeat that demand and to assert the need for Lebanon to reign in Hezbollah.

KING: Robin Wright, I know you, in fact you recently were in the Middle East. You interviewed leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas. You know a lot. You've written books on it certainly. What's Iran's point of view here?

ROBIN WRIGHT, WASHINGTON POST: Well, Iran has been a strong supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas. It has been at the center of all three of the controversies the United States faces in the Middle East right now, in Iraq, on the nuclear issue in Iran, as well as in Lebanon.

It's one of the key players and it also underscores why it's very difficult for the United States actually to find a tangible means of intervening at the moment. It doesn't have relations with Iran and the Arab governments, its allies in the region, have very few contacts with Iran as well.

So, it limits the ability of the United States to reign in Hezbollah, unlike with Hamas where the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Saudis can all have relations, all have dialog, all have given support in some form in the past and can try to negotiate for the release of that one Israeli soldier.

KING: Hisham Melham, is the Lebanese government like between a rock and a hard place here?

HISHAM MELMAN, D.C. BUREAU CHIEF, "AS-SAFIR" NEWSPAPER, BEIRUT: Well, in a way you're right. The Lebanese government has to tread on thin ice at this stage because Hezbollah is, in fact, probably stronger than the government in many respects. It has a charismatic leader. It has its own military wing. It has its own media empire. It's in many ways a state within a state.

It is part of the government at the same time and it has up to a certain point a veto power and the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora was trying to create enough pressure, political pressure from within the Lebanese society, supported by the United Nations, to debate the issue of Hezbollah's weapons and what they should do and to put more pressure on them.

And that's why now the Israeli retaliation which is disproportionate obviously may in the immediate future strengthen Hezbollah's hands with its own constituency, with its own supporters, especially in the Arab world.

People (INAUDIBLE) because they believe that they are living in the shadow of Israeli power, so in the immediate future Hezbollah is in the driver's seat, just as Hamas is in the driver's seat in the Palestinian territories.

But after a while when people realize to what extent the Israelis have inflicted damage on Lebanon, on its infrastructure, on its economy, they're going to raise serious questions about Hezbollah's decision to embark on such a reckless move and endanger the country's sovereignty.

Now, that's why I think there is a role now for the EU, for the G8, for the international community just as President Chirac and President Bush collaborated together at the Sea Island Summit three years ago and came up with Resolution 1559, which led to the Syrian withdrawal in Lebanon. There should be a mediation of that kind without plunging Lebanon into civil war.

KING: We'll get a break and come back with lots more. We'll talk with the Israeli ambassador to the United States and get back with our panel as well. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

Joining us in Washington, Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. What can you tell us about the bombing going on now, Israeli planes bombing in Lebanon?

DANIEL AYALON, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Well, what we're doing, Larry, is really a pure act of self defense after the clear provocation of the Hezbollah crossing international borders, after we have left Lebanese altogether. There is no one inch of Lebanon soil, which is occupied by Israel.

So, for the Hezbollah to do what they did with killing the eight Israeli soldiers, kidnapping the two and then shelling our major towns, keeping our population in the north in bomb shells and bunkers, this is of course an untenable situation and we would bring about a change for this situation. In order to do that we want to do two things. First of all, to defang the Hezbollah to make sure that they will not have the capabilities not to launch the rockets and, of course, not to do these kidnappings when they are smack dab against our border.

So, we will repel them and push them back and hopefully this will strengthen the Lebanese government so they will exercise their sovereignty so they will assume their responsibilities according to the 1559 U.N. resolution and that I think will be the direction for de-escalation for bringing some relative calm into the area.

KING: Mr. Ambassador, though, on the other hand, do you fear the possibility of Iran and Syria getting involved and the possibility of a total war?

AYALON: Quite frankly, Larry, I don't think that Iran or Syria can be more involved than they already have. They have already played their bad cards by masterminding the Hezbollah and the Hamas in a coordinated fashion.

I must say certainly the Iranians and the Syrians would like to see flare-ups in the entire region to divert attentions from the assassination of Hariri, instigated in Damascus from the relentless activities of Iran to possess nuclear weapons and, of course, to drive their agenda, their ideological agenda of turning the Middle East into an Islamist radical region.

KING: What do you want the United States to do?

AYALON: Oh, I think it's not just the United States. I think they certainly are the leaders and we look up to them. I think they're very responsible. I think they are very important in the region. But it's not just the U.S. It's the entire international community.

I would like to draw your attention, Larry, to two years ago after the Hariri assassination. Both the U.S., together with the European community, led by France, brought out 1559 U.N. Security Council resolution, which in turn moved the Syrians out of Lebanon in order to restore de-escalation.

In order to restore common stability we have to demand a clear cut demand from Hezbollah to disarm and the Lebanese army can do it and I think this in turn will bring a fashion of a dialog, a political dialog which could be ensued after that.

KING: Thank you Ambassador Daniel Ayalon. We'll be calling on your quite a bit in the next few days, hopefully as this thing winds down.

George Mitchell, former Senate Majority Leader and international peace negotiator, what has to happen here? Is this going to get worse before it gets better?

MITCHELL: It could, Larry, and as we've seen in just the last couple of days how quickly things can escalate following what was earlier accurately described as a reckless act by Hezbollah.

The problem is, of course, that the Israelis undoubtedly have a right to self defense and they have overwhelming military superiority. But, as we see, for example, the United States in Iraq, overwhelming military superiority does not necessarily bring the results you want, particularly in these heavily politicized and to some extent religious conflicts.

There's only one resolution of this conflict and that's going to be through a negotiation that produces a two state solution, Israeli and Palestinian. That's what the majority of people on both sides want.

The problem has been getting there and this creates the potential for making it even more difficult, which is why I think there has to be a concerted effort of the type the ambassador just described or others have described, led by the United States, European Union, and others, to first de-escalate and then to try to get some process going again to bring about negotiations and a resolution of the conflict. It won't be solved by military means.

KING: Ambassador Kurtzer, does it need a strong leader somewhere? Could it be Bush? Could it be Putin? Could it be someone in that vein who steps in?

KURTZER: Oh, I think for sure without leadership this situation is going to drift and things will get far worse. I agree with the previous points that what's needed here is concerted action.

The United States alone is a required partner but it can't bring about the kinds of changes in Hezbollah policy that will be needed. For that we're going to require both the European Union and a key Arab state to help in order to de-escalate the violence in the north.

Similarly, we will need at least Egypt's support to bring about a return to the status quo (INAUDIBLE) in Gaza and to try to bring about a return to negotiations.

But it will require that kind of determined leadership that unfortunately we haven't seen that often until now and I think the G8 Summit and other international contacts will give an opportunity to stimulate such leadership.

KING: We'll take a break. And we'll be back with more of our panel. They'll be with us all the way.

We'll check in with two prominent members of the United States Senate, Chuck Hagel and Barbara Boxer and get their thoughts on this edition of LARRY KING LIVE. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Israeli issues with Hezbollah and our common desire to work together to help bring peace to that troubled region, my attitude is this. There are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace and those of us who are peace loving must work together to help the agents of peace, Israel, President Abbas, and others, to achieve their objective.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Joining us now in Washington, Senator Chuck Hagel, member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, member of the Select Intelligence. He's a Republican of Nebraska. And, Senator Barbara Boxer, a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, a Democrat of California.

For both of you we have a good e-mail question on our website from Kristen in San Angelo, Texas. Start with Senator Hagel. The question is: "Can the United States afford to get involved in yet another confrontation?"

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Well, the fact is, Larry, we are involved in the Middle East. We are deeply involved and, as I have listened to your distinguished guests here this evening, all are making sense, as usual.

But let me take a little, a step beyond what Senator Mitchell was talking about. I think it is so serious now, I think we are at the most dangerous time maybe we have seen ever in the Middle East with all the combustible elements that I would suggest that we move into some new way of implementing a process.

And for that I would advise the president to pick someone like Colin Powell or Jim Baker, two individuals who have the capability, the world stature and trust, the experience to do something about this.

The fact is Secretary Rice is bogged down daily, hourly, minute- to-minute with so many responsibilities, the president is. This is a time now crisis focuses discipline. It focuses what we need to do. And I think we need to now take advantage of this with the G8 meeting.

I think the president needs to move on this. He needs to bring someone like Powell in, answer to him, give him the authority, and take advantage of this to stop -- take advantage of this moment to stop the escalation and move beyond.

KING: Senator Boxer, what do you think?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: I couldn't agree more. We have to have the top people addressing this issue. I put Colin Powell on my list. You know what I'd send a team. I think Colin Powell. I think Madeleine Albright. I think Dennis Rice. Send a team because this is a defining moment for the world.

Now, if you're e-mail writer is suggesting can we get involved militarily I think the answer is it would be very difficult for us because there's been an obsession with Iraq. I think what we're seeing here in part if the boldness of Iran taking advantage of the fact that we're bogged down and Iran's surrogate Hezbollah also their serious surrogate testing their muscle, punishing Israel for doing what we thought was so great when they did it, which is to say voluntarily relieving Gaza, relieving Lebanon and this is what they get. So, I think we need to get involved in a diplomatic way and fast.

KING: Does this mediator, Senator Hagel, or group of mediators, as Senator Boxer suggests, do they meet with Hezbollah?

HAGEL: Well, I wouldn't presume at this point to get into the tactics or the parameters of that but I would say this in answer to your question. The president needs to get seriously engaged now. If we do not do that now at this moment, and I mean this moment, then the possibility of this escalating into a Middle East catastrophe, which would drag in all nations of the world, if for no other reason than just the energy dynamic here.

The ramifications, the significance of all of this is astounding once you start to chart it out. That means if he would decide to move in a direction, like I think he must, and that is bring in someone like Powell to do this, that person must have authority. He must speak for the president, report to the president.

This is not at all sidelining Secretary Rice but how he would do it that's up to him. That's why you need a guy like Rice or a guy like Powell or someone like Baker with a stature and the respect and the credibility and the trust to get it done.

Now, they can't do it alone. We can't impose peace. We can't force peace on anyone. Of course not. But the fact is we have so much, the world has so much riding on this now.

KING: Senator Boxer, is it as serious as Senator Hagel says? Is this the most serious time in the history of this calamity?

BOXER: In my lifetime because what we're seeing is, we're seeing rockets that can hit way further than ever before. We're seeing rockets attacking Haifa. We're seeing soldiers nabbed in broad daylight.

My goodness think about what would happen, how would we respond? How would we respond if our soldiers were in the homeland and nabbed and kidnapped? We would use everything at our disposal and that's why this is so dangerous.

And I would add one bit of optimism. There is U.N. Resolution No. 1559 and that resolution essentially said Lebanon has the right to govern itself and Lebanon should be left alone. Syria has not left Lebanon alone.

And I would say what we ought to do, in addition to moving forward with the highest level delegation that we can is try to put forward a ceasefire where within a 24 hour ceasefire those soldiers are returned. And then U.N. Resolution 1559 is obeyed. That would diffuse a lot of what we've got.

KING: In a little while we will meet the Syrian ambassador to the United States. Thank you Senators Hagel and Boxer.

You're watching LARRY KING LIVE, this special edition with this major occurrence in the Middle East. Our Senators Hagel and Boxer giving us a very, very strong and pessimistic view of what's going on.

We'll be right back with more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: News changes every minute in a situation like this. What's the latest, Alessio Vinci in Beirut?

VINCI: Larry, the Israeli operation continues here in the capital Beirut. We just heard two loud explosions over the last two minutes with Israeli jets flying overhead here, so it does really appear that we are at the beginning of a second day of bombing of the capital -- Larry.

KING: John Vause, is Haifa quiet now?

VAUSE: For now, Haifa is quiet, Larry, but there have been threats made by the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah that said if Beirut was targeted by Israeli forces, then Haifa would be hit in turn, and so this is the start of the Jewish sabbath here, Friday morning. Usually the Katyusia rockets and the other attacks happen in the early hours of the morning around 7:00 to 7:30 when many people are making their way to work. It could happen again Friday morning here in Haifa as well as other cities in northern Israel.

KING: And Ben Weberman in Gaza City, as you reported earlier, they got kind of a break in this, didn't they?

WEBERMAN: Certainly the people here are breathing a sigh of relief that it's been relatively quiet. It was only just last night, just over 24 hours ago that the foreign ministry, which is just about a five-minute drive from here was hit. This evening it's been fairly quiet. People here in Gaza hoping that some of the pressure has been relieved from here. Larry?

KING: Thank you very much. Robin Wright in Washington, you know a lot about Iran. Do you expect them to get involved?

WRIGHT: I don't think directly involved at all. First of all, logistically, it's just too far. They don't share a border with Israel. Clearly they are the main arms supplier for Hezbollah and that's an important route. Whether they can get anything in these days is another question. They would have to ferry it via Damascus. The greater question is really what happens with Syria?

This is where the leader of Hamas is based and which is really the key element in terms of backing up Hezbollah on the ground and providing access to them. The bigger question is, will the conflagration spread first to Syria? I doubt it short-term. I think the Israeli goal is to eliminate Hezbollah but it depends, events on the ground are always overtaken and they tend to escalate and, you know, looking as it goes on for weeks it could unravel further.

KING: Hisham Melham of "Annahar" the Lebanese newspaper published in Beirut, also hosts his own program on satellite news station. What do you make of the suggestions by the senators of the United States appointing someone like Colin Powell to get involved?

MELHAM: Well, you need presidential involvement, whether through a trusted adviser like Bush one with Jim Baker, who was taken seriously by the leaders of the region. Every time Baker would go there, people would think they were talking to a clone of George Bush one. Unless you have somebody like that, that kind of envoy, he would not be taken seriously by people who have tremendous political experience and tremendous political cunning, if you will.

So, but definitely there has to be an American involvement. At this stage there has to be a clear-cut message from the Americans and Europeans to all players. The Israelis, not to inflict a collective punishment on the Lebanese. To Hezbollah and Lebanese government that only the Lebanese government should have monopoly on the use of force in Lebanon. There is also a political horizon.

I mean people talk about the Israeli kidnapped soldiers, as if the crisis began with them taking, them being taken by the Palestinians or by Hezbollah. There is a wider conflict in the United States because it was seen in a mode of entrenchment on the Gaza situation. This gave rise to Hamas and to the radical forces, Hamas, Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria who see the United States drowning in the quick sand of Iraq and they are exploiting the situation.

KING: George Mitchell, what do you make of the, you have served in similar capacities as kind of an adviser and good will ambassador and solver of problems. What do you make of the ideas proposed by the senators?

MITCHELL: I think it's essential, it's obviously long overdue. It should have been done a long time ago. In fact, the administration has sent several people over and that's just the problem. Someone goes for a few weeks, comes back, someone else goes for a few weeks, comes back. There is no focus. Where it's focused is Iraq. We should be devoting that kind of laser-like focus, concentration and perseverance to what is the central issue in the region.

The fact is Larry, no matter what happens in Iraq, even if what occurs is better than we can even now imagine, there will not be stability in the region until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. And that takes not just the sending of a high level envoy but persevering patience. What must be said is what I said in northern Ireland and I know it's been said in other contexts, I'm here to stay, we're going to be here until we get the job done and the job done right. That's what's needed and it should have happened before. It certainly should happen now and I hope it happens soon.

KING: Ambassador Kurtzer, what do you make of the idea? KURTZER: I would take a deep breath and pause before we jump in with a high level envoy at this moment. We have some serious thinking to do about our policy. Our peace process policy is in shambles. The Road Map of Peace, which President Bush articulated, really doesn't exist anymore.

We don't talk to Hamas. We don't talk to Hezbollah, so to empower a few people to run around and try to make some progress without deciding what basis on which they are going to operate, I think, would be foolhardy. Hisham Melham is exactly right, we need to develop some principles on which basis we will see an end to the confrontation in the north. Senator Mitchell is right that we need an approach that can work on the Israeli-Palestinian side.

We have an occasion right now with the G-8 summit, where President Bush can exercise leadership to start to develop those principles and once we have a viable set of ideas that can wok, choosing the envoy, who is empowered by the president and who can work multilaterally with our allies would be the least of our problems.

KING: We'll take a break and when we come back our panel of course remains with us. We will meet the Syrian ambassador to the United States, don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Syria needs to be held to account. Syria's housing the militant wing of Hamas. Hezbollah has an active presence in Syria. The truth of the matter is, if we really want the situation to settle down, the soldiers need to be returned and President Asad needs to show some leadership toward peace.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: In that regard joining us in Washington is Ambassador Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States. What's your response to what the president said?

IMAD MOUSTAPHA, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: I would say this is becoming like a stereotypical cliche. Whenever there is a problem in the Middle East this administration will immediately blame Syria instead of actually looking for the core cause of the problem. The difference is, that this administration only blames and assigns responsibility. Previous administrations used to engage and involved themselves in diplomatic initiatives. Senator Mitchell has said this and I think there is a need for this administration to change its approach to the Middle East problems. Stop blaming this country or that country for the situation. Look at the big elephant in the room. The big elephant in the room is the continuous Israeli occupation, and unless the whole Middle East problem is resolved, instability will always be there.

KING: Lebanon's telecommunications minister, Marwan Hamade, said his country is being taken hostage on orders from Damascus. How do you react?

MOUSTAPHA: I don't want to react to this. You know, Lebanon has many divided domestic politics. Some Lebanese cabinet ministers are friends and allies to Syria; some are not. I don't want to go into domestic Lebanese issues.

Syria has nothing to do whatsoever, whatsoever, in what is happening today in the Middle East. Everything has started, the whole cycle of violence has started when the Israelis started causing incredible, incredible suffering to the Palestinians, bombarding their cities, abducting cabinet, civilian cabinet ministers. This has happened two weeks ago, without any response whatsoever or reaction from the U.S. administration. Abducting and taking prisoners from the Palestinian Assembly, which is a legislative assembly, elected officials. And without any response. And then the escalation started.

What is happening today in the Middle East is the following: The Palestinians have one Israeli soldier, and the Hezbollah has two Israeli soldiers. Israel has 9,000 plus Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. What they want is fair and square. They want an exchange.

This has happened before. Israel has twice engaged with the Hezbollah in prisoner exchange. Hezbollah wants to free their prisoners, the Lebanese prisoners taken by Israel. And the Palestinians want to free, to exchange the soldier, the military soldier that was taken with the thousands of kids, women and Palestinian prisoners that were abducted by Israel.

I think this is a very fair deal. Please do remember, Lebanese and Palestinian human beings are equal to Israeli human beings.

KING: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. We'll be calling on you frequently. Ambassador Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States.

MOUSTAPHA: Thank you.

KING: Robin Wright, you've been writing about the region, exploring it, been there. What's your overall assessment of this and the United States' involvement in it?

WRIGHT: Well, let's have a little reality check here. The fact is, the United States clearly is the most important player when it comes to brokering between the Arabs and the Israelis, but the reality is that it's much more difficult this time than it was in 1993 and 1996, when the Clinton administration brokered a deal between Hezbollah and Israel twice, once in a written agreement, once an oral agreement, and played the pivotal role.

This time, who do we talk to? The U.S. ambassador to Syria has actually been reposted to Iraq, so she's not even available as a mediator. We can't go to Lebanon. The Lebanese government has virtually no influence over Hezbollah. We can't talk to the Iranians.

This is not a dynamic that is, you know, Sunni-Arab world, our traditional allies dealing with the Palestinians. This is a much more complicated issue, and it's not going to be as easy.

There is also the issue of what Hezbollah's objectives are. It's a movement led Hassan Nasrallah. I interviewed him a few weeks ago in Beirut. This is a man who sees himself now taking on a much broader role. He's the kind of Che Guevara of the Middle East. He thinks he's the one who is going to, in a region at the moment doesn't have a viable ideology, does not have popular leadership in most countries, that he's providing an alternative.

The question is, of course, whether he faces the fate of Che Guevara, and whether his Islamist ideology goes down the tubes.

But the reality is that he reflects a lot of what -- the bitterness that is going on in the region. And while there is some resentment in Lebanon, there are other parts in the region that are feeling that this is a man who has taken on the Israelis in a way a lot of other regimes aren't. It will be very difficult to deal with him, to get him to compromise right now.

KING: Robin Wright.

We'll be back with our panel. We're going to meet the Palestinian legislature, former candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority, and then we're going to meet a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, Captain Erik Snider. Our panel remains with us.

John Roberts will be hosting "AC 360" tonight as Anderson Cooper heads for the region. John, what's up?

JOHN ROBERTS, GUEST HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": Hey, Larry, how are you this evening. At the top of the hour, more on what we've been watching unfold almost minute by minute. We'll have more insight on where this is all going and how to pull back from the brink, the wider war. "Time" magazine's Joe Klein joins us with some perspective on how the president is dealing with it all. I'll talk as well with a veteran Middle East watcher who happens to be CNN's own Wolf Blitzer. Plus, a look at a new and deadly version of Hezbollah's weapon of choice.

Also tonight, mandatory evacuation orders in California as wildfires rage outside of Los Angeles, and there is concern that two fires, already massive, may merge into one superblaze. All of that ahead on "AC 360" 10:00 p.m. Eastern -- Larry.

KING: Thanks, John. A lot of people may not know that Wolf Blitzer was a reporter, correspondent for "The Jerusalem Post" before he entered the world of broadcast media. John Roberts will ably host "AC 360." That's at 9:00 p.m. -- 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific. And we'll be right back with more. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's get another report from Beirut from Alessio Vinci. Anything new, Alessio? VINCI: Well, Larry, the operation -- the Israeli operations against the Lebanese capital continues. Within the last few minutes, we've heard two very loud explosions very close to this bureau -- so much, in fact, that the whole building shook.

We did not hear planes flying overhead, suggesting perhaps that these were two shells that were fired from Israeli gun boats that are actually enforcing a blockade of the seaport here in Beirut. But this is to say basically, the Israeli capital continues to be under shelling at this time. Basically, 24 hours after Israel fired its first missiles against the international airport, destroying the three runways there. And basically also within the last 24 hours, destroying a main route linking Beirut to Damascus with the blockade. It does appear that Israel right now wants to completely isolate by land, sea and air the Lebanese country, Lebanon.

KING: Thank you, Alessio.

Let's check in with Ramallah and the West Bank with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian legislator, a former candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority. From a Palestinian perspective, how serious is this?

DR. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, PALESTINIAN LEGISLATOR: This is very serious, Larry. I really think all Palestinians ask this questions, how many wars we should have before the Israelis would end the occupation of Palestinian areas. This is going to be next year the longest occupation in modern history, 40 years since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. And obviously, this is the root of the problem.

It breaks my heart to tell you that Gaza Strip now is subjected to the worst form of collective punishment. It's an area which is only 200 square miles, with 1.4 million people, probably the most highly densely populated area in the world. And Israel has destroyed the only electricity station there, the water supply is damaged, there is a big problem with sewage systems. We could end up with a very serious population disaster. Thousands of people are stranded on borders. Every day we lose one or two patients who cannot get to hospitals.

Six people have died on the borders, 100 people have been killed by the Israeli bombing and 250 were injured. It's a disaster. It's a total disaster. I think the problem relates to the very simple fact that Israel refuses to negotiate. Unilateralism does not work. Unilateral from the side of Israel would not help, so the only way out of this is to really negotiate. People should remember what worked. What worked is an international peace conference with all parties involved and have a serious peace process.

KING: Your president Abbas of your authority says a regional war is mounting. Do you agree?

BARGHOUTI: I think it's a very dangerous situation. Yes, I agree. I think the situation is very bad but there is a way out of this. This is not a situation which can go on forever and we just should sit down and watch people die. We don't need more wars. We don't need more violence. There is a way out of this and for the United States to play a role here it's possible, but the United States has to be even-handed. It has to have a more even-handed policy.

It cannot be only on one side, the side of Israel. It must take a more balanced position and people have to remember that before the resolution 1559, there was 242 and 338, this problem started 58 years ago with something called the Palestinian issue. It has to be resolved. Something has to be done to tackle the, to find a way to end this occupation.

KING: Thank you, Doctor Barghouti. We'll come back with our remaining words and include a final word from the panel and Captain Erik Snider, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Joining us from Tel Aviv is Captain Erik Snider, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces. What's the latest, Captain Snider, on the military operations in Lebanon?

CAPT. ERIK SNIDER, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES SPOKESPERSON: Well, military operations are continuing as we speak. We've just recently struck a very important Hezbollah post in the southern part of Beirut. We're continuing our mission, which has been defined by our government, which is to try and bring our soldiers back home, as well as put pressure on the Lebanese in order to wipe out the terrorism that's occurring along our northern border.

KING: What are the targets in Lebanon?

SNIDER: There are a number of different strategic targets that we're hitting. Obviously, the Hezbollah posts, their command centers and where they store their weapons. In addition we're also trying to hit other strategic targets where we know we can prevent the rearming of Hezbollah such as at airports. Also at ports and also roads between Lebanon and Syria.

KING: Your government and your military blames Hezbollah for the attacks on Haifa. Hezbollah denies launching that attack. What's your response to that, captain?

SNIDER: It's very clear that these rockets that landed in Haifa came from Hezbollah. They did not come from Timbuktu or anywhere else.

KING: You're engaged on two fronts. What's the impact of that on your military?

SNIDER: Our military is capable of operating on multiple fronts. Unfortunately throughout our history, even during our war of independence, we've had to fight on many fronts, having challenges both in the north and having challenges in the south is not something we have a problem with.

KING: Is it going to get worse before it gets better, do you think?

SNIDER: Well, we certainly hope it gets better. There is a very simple solution and that's for the Lebanese government to take responsibility. What they need to do is they need to release the soldiers and they need to fill the vacuum that's occurring along their southern border. The Lebanese army is not present along the boarder. There is a terrorist organization that uses the south of Lebanon as a jumping point for carrying out terrorist attacks on Israel. If they were to fulfill all of the obligation that they have, including according to that U.N. decisions, all they need to do is go to the border, as any sovereign state should do, protect their border, keep it quiet and then everything will be solved.

KING: Thank you, captain. Captain Erik Snider, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces. We only have about two minutes, so let's run down the panel, George Mitchell, are you pessimistic?

MITCHELL: No, Larry, I'm not. As you've heard tonight it's difficult, it's dangerous but the United States is a world leader and the burden of leadership involves the ability to create and convey a realistic hope and a belief that the problem can be solved. I believe it can be. I do not believe that conflict is inevitable, that death and destruction will solve problems. I think realistically, this can be resolved.

KING: We're running short on time, Ambassador Kurtzer are you pessimistic?

KURTZER: No, Larry, I agree with Senator Mitchell. I think determination and leadership can do the job but we also need to be realistic, that after six years of this administration's policies, we need to articulate some very concrete ideas so we can move forward to stop the violence and to present some hope for a negotiated solution.

KING: Hisham Melham are you pessimistic?

MELHAM: I'm pessimistic for the short run. The people of Lebanon are being subjected to collective punishment that they don't deserve. There has to be a political outcome to the root cause of the problem, the Arab Israeli conflict. There has to be American involvement to settle that overall issue. Otherwise, we will continue to enter into these endless cycles of violence.

KING: Robin Wright?

WRIGHT: I think we're in for some very tough weeks ahead. Down the road, but we're talking years, there is a cause for optimism. I think there is a will for an eventual settlement but I think this is a very difficult time that's not likely to end soon.

KING: Thank you all very much. One last note, we have an incredible lineup next week starting Monday with musical superstar Sheryl Crow, her first prime time interview since her breakup with Lance Armstrong and since she learned she has breast cancer.

If you have a question for Sheryl Crow, e-mail it by going CNN.com/LarryKing. Tomorrow night I'm sure we'll have more on the conflict in the Middle East and we note with sadness the passing today of a good friend, and one of the world's great comics, the now late Red Buttons. What a treasure he was, also won an academy award. Goodbye Red.

Let's go to New York, John Roberts is sitting in for Anderson Cooper to host "AC 360," John it's yours.

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