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JOHN KING, USA

Libyan Military Campaign; Next Steps in Libya

Aired March 23, 2011 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks Wolf and good evening everyone. Two big pieces of Libya news from the Pentagon tonight and an intriguing nugget from the State Department, military matters first.

The Pentagon says the military campaign in Libya is shifting now to target Gadhafi regime ground forces that refuse to stop their attacks on the opposition and it says while American fighter jets are active at the moment, U.S. pilots flew 113 of the 175 coalition air sorties yesterday, for example, that U.S. role will shrink dramatically in the next few days leaving other nations to enforce the no-fly zone and to decide on military targeting.

On the ground in Libya all public signals from the regime suggest continued defiance and continued attacks on the opposition. But here's the intriguing nugget. Senior U.S. officials tell CNN tonight that some members of Gadhafi's inner circle are reaching out to the State Department and reaching out to other Arab nations, as well. Curious contacts to say the least but as yet our sources tell us no indication Gadhafi himself is looking to negotiate an exit strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think there are any number of possible outcomes here, and no one is in a position to predict them. Whether there are major defection -- further defections within his own ruling circle, whether there are divisions within his family, there are a variety of possibilities that seems to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A variety of possibilities but listen here, Secretary Gates isn't betting on a peaceful settlement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GATES: Gadhafi has basically sworn that he will show no mercy to anybody who has been in opposition. That's not exactly an invitation to negotiate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's begin our look at major developments on the ground in Libya with Nic Robertson. He's in Tripoli.

Nic, the coalition says it is now in a new phase. The no-fly zone is in effect. They say it is effective and they are beginning they say not to target Gadhafi forces on the ground if those forces are taking action against the opposition. Are we seeing any shift in the balance of power in the key cities?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: On the ground here, we're now seeing, witnessing fighter aircraft flying over while the missile attacks and Gadhafi's forces are responding in a different way rather than continuing to fire in the air and perhaps make their positions clear to aircraft that can circle back. They're just using very short bursts then stopping their gunfire so that seems to be a difference here in Tripoli and Misrata, people in the city there report that because the coalition now has an effective no-fly zone able to target a couple of Gadhafi forces' position around the city, the city had a much quieter day. They say that in Misrata people were able to get out to the stores for the first time in seven days so it actually does appear that there are some visible changes in a way that gets forces are acting (ph) on the ground here -- John.

KING: So some changes city by city but on the big question, Nic, about whether the regime is rattled, whether Gadhafi might be looking for an exit strategy. In his last public appearance he sounded quite defiant essentially saying I'm not afraid of your rockets and I will be here to fight.

ROBERTSON: And that's the theme that has begun with and has stuck with and we keep hearing and it's the publicly -- it's the public face of the regime here, as well. It's what senior officials will tell us in front of the camera but I have had other conversations with senior officials here. Deputy foreign minister here told me that he believes that if there were a viable cease-fire on both sides and let's not forget this government has called a cease-fire and it hasn't held it and has continued to attack in Misrata and Ajdabiya and places like that, so they've got a bad track record but he did say if both sides agree to cease-fire there would be a way for the government to negotiate with people that they trust on the other side.

And the inference being that somewhere in the way distant future, way distant future that this could be a country where Gadhafi doesn't have a leadership role, perhaps one of his sons or somebody else. But that's something way in the future. The only other thing I've sort of picked up here and this comes from a senior government official who told me he would be traveling outside of the region soon and this is somebody I know has talked with international diplomats before. He didn't say to me he was going outside the region to talk about a new future for Libya or anything like that but when you have somebody like that who leaves the country at a time like this, you do have to look at this as an opportunity for the regime to explore and have conversations that they can't do from inside the country like now -- John.

KING: Curious, curious development, we'll keep an eye on that one. Nic Robertson for us in Tripoli -- Nic, thanks.

You just heard Nic note and we'll take a look at the map, a more quiet day in Misrata, more quiet but not a completely quiet day. Witnesses tell CNN pro-Gadhafi tanks shelled the area around that city's hospital killing at least two people. Now that the no-fly zone is in place, what next remains a giant question? The hope of the Obama White House is that the opposition can now regroup and retake cities it lost just before that military campaign began. A key early test of that would be right here in Ajdabiya.

Let's check in now with CNN's Arwa Damon. She's live for us right from the opposition stronghold of Benghazi and Arwa on that point when it comes to retaking lost ground, Ajdabiya will be a key early test. What is the opposition sense of the state of play there and how aggressive is it ready to be?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It most certainly will be a key test. (INAUDIBLE) been sitting outside of Ajdabiya the opposition moving forward very slowly. Prior to the air strikes they were positioned around 30 miles outside of Ajdabiya. That is before Gadhafi's forces broke through their front lines and came all the way to Benghazi but the front line since then has been holding pretty much at around 30 miles outside of Ajdabiya.

What we have been seeing is them moving even closer. They're only a few miles outside of the city right now. They say that air strikes launched on Gadhafi's troops positioning themselves at the northern entrance damaged at least three tanks. The problem, though, is that there are other tanks in position dug in only their turrets are projecting out and that they say is still able to hammer them as is the artillery.

What they have been trying to do is outflank Gadhafi's troops. What it really boils down to, they're saying is whether or not they eventually get the equipment and the weapons that they need. If you look at images of the fighters on the front line from the opposition side they don't even from flak jackets, helmets, any sort of protective gear.

The weapons that they're using are fairly antiquated. There are things that they've managed to gather from various arms depot, and so it is going to be very difficult because is the opposition going to be able to push the fight forward in areas where they cannot call in an air strike where those air strikes cannot actually reach and so in Ajdabiya we've been seeing them inching closer. It seems as if they're going to be able to take that city in the next few days but again, it still remains to be seen -- John.

KING: And on that point of rearming, Arwa, I'm curious what the opposition would make of President Obama's answer when asked by CNN if he would consider assistance, military assistance to the opposition. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It may be that it's not a matter of military might, but instead an idea that's come to the Libyan people that it's time for a change that ends up ultimately sweeping Gadhafi out of power, but we are going to be examining all our options.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Not an absolute no, Arwa, but the president clearly playing down the prospect, at least of any major direct U.S. military help.

DAMON: Yes, John that most certainly is what it sounds like and I also think the opposition would feel that the notion of a nonmilitary option probably would not materialize simply because they would say that Gadhafi is not the kind of a man who, "A," would be willing to negotiate, who would stand by his word if he were, in fact, to try to negotiate some sort of a peaceful transition of power.

They would point to the fact that all of Gadhafi's rhetoric does, in fact, make it seem as if he's going to hold on until the bloody end as he has said in his words, until the blood of all Libyan men and women has been spilt and so the opposition does not view the Gadhafi regime as being a regime that they can negotiate with. They say that they are fighting because they are forced to fight even though they would very much like to see an end to the bloodshed.

But the sense is that they are going to be forced to battle this one out simply because the man and the regime that they are up against is not a regime they say that is rationale, is not one that stands by its word, is not one whom they trust. Added to that, the very fact that they want to see Gadhafi not only to step down from power but they also want to see him brought to justice and it's not likely that he is going to agree to those terms -- John.

KING: If that's the case, this could drag on for quite some time. Arwa Damon live for us tonight in Benghazi -- thanks, Arwa.

Let's take a closer look now at conditions on the ground in Libya and the big debate over command and control of this operation going forward. With us again the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General George Joulwan. General, let's go over to the map for a little bit.

I want to take a closer look at how this has played out in recent days and you've been very helpful to us over time. Remember when this operation started, this is what you said should be the primary concern, the surface-to-air missiles, the anti-aircraft artillery. Well the coalition strikes have happened.

We're in day five now, which essentially has taken this out of the equation and they say the no-fly zone is in place and that right now Gadhafi cannot and has not tried to move his Air Force. The question is what happens now and if you look at the state of play, yes, some ground forces have been attacked. But let's just take Ajdabiya for example.

Fierce clashes, the fighting continues. Gadhafi forces control the north and the west city gates. Rebels are in control of parts of the city, but the forces is there for the regime, tanks, AK-47s, Katuyusha rockets. What would you do right now? Yes, sure there are coalition planes flying over head. If you attack those forces down in here, what are the risks? Higher civilian casualties I would guess. GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Yes, not only that. It would right now really break up the coalition. The coalition at the very beginning we talked about clarity of mission, there is no agreement on that mission. There is a U.N. resolution but the implementation of that resolution is -- there are many different interpretations of them. That's causing problems within the alliance and within many of our allies.

KING: So do we know what happens then going forward? Obviously one goal was to minimize Gadhafi's power. Hopefully embolden the opposition to rearm and come across but, again, if you look at the conditions on the ground, you look at the city of Misrata, Gadhafi forces around the city on the periphery. They have again tanks, heavy artillery, snipers. Rebels have some AK-47s but they are pleading for heavy weapons to get back into that fight -- should that be the job of this coalition either overtly or covertly to arm them?

JOULWAN: Again, there is disagreement on what the no-fly zone means. If the no-fly zone means stop all air then they've done that. If the no-fly zone also implies you can attack targets on the ground whether they're threatening civilians or not that's another matter and many of the nations in this coalition do not agree with that.

KING: And so on that point right now Secretary Clinton makes the case that by having a no-fly zone, by having the strikes that they've stopped slaughter in Benghazi. Gadhafi's forces no longer going into the city center there, but now you have this situation here. Gadhafi is still in charge of much of the country. If you don't have clarity of mission, agreement on the mission what will happen in the days and weeks and months ahead conceivably if he remains in charge and he still has a military.

JOULWAN: There are several options here. One of the options without imploring (ph) U.S. ground forces or NATO ground forces is to really get if you're interested in doing that, the rebel side, get them armed so that they can take care of what they need to take care of in their own country. That's on option.

KING: That's taking sides in a civil war.

JOULWAN: That -- and so -- that is part of the disagreement within the alliance, so yet there are pros and cons to all of that, but that is let them do the fighting for their country. That is to me an option. If you want to pursue that then I think you need to get consensus within this coalition to be able to do that.

KING: When you say consensus with the coalition, I want to close this down and close this down because I want to take a closer look at the coalition and we've talked about this again. The strikes so far have been launched from an array of bases all around Europe down here in -- now, NATO commanded -- a NATO commanded operation would be headquartered right here, these NATO air bases in Italy, you're very familiar with them from your former job as the supreme allied commander.

However, the French say they don't want a NATO commanded -- maybe command and control but you have such disagreement that Germans and the Turks actually storming out of a meeting at NATO headquarters. That ever happen when you were there?

JOULWAN: Not to that degree, no. We've had disagreement before. Over Bosnia, we had -- the country then that was giving me a great deal of difficulty was the United States. They didn't want to get involved. So you know you have to work this to try to get consensus and --

KING: But there's a military operation underway. Have you ever seen this kind of disagreement and debate at a time when there are planes in the air, bombs being dropped?

JOULWAN: Because there was not consensus on this clarity of the mission, we keep coming back to that but, you know, bombs were dropped and everyone said that is not a no-fly zone. That is attacking. That is an offensive operation. Some agree that should be done. Others did not. And until you get political consensus here then you cannot have an alliance take control of the operation and that's the difficulty -- I think they should.

I think there's -- you have that combined air operation center in Italy that can be the command and control. But they need to get their act together and they don't have their act together. This is the allies and they got to get it together. What do they want to accomplish?

KING: And at this point you say they don't have their act together.

JOULWAN: Right.

KING: If you were a betting man then, does that mean in your view Gadhafi will be in charge next week, next month, the month after that? If we're having a conversation in six months based on everything you've seen today will Gadhafi still be in charge?

JOULWAN: Based on what I've seen today I think -- I don't know in six months or a year but at least in the next month or two I would say yes, unless they get some consensus and they agree and they work as a team within this alliance to be able to get a plan that can work in Libya.

KING: General, as always, appreciate your help. We'll watch this one play out in the days and weeks ahead.

And when we come back, more fires at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan and new fears radiation contamination in the tap water there.

But next, the president is back home from his Central America and South American trip and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have the same question for him. What's the end game in Libya?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: As you can see President Obama is back home tonight, back from his trip to Latin and South America and as Air Force One was on approach to Washington, well, the Republican speaker of the House significantly upped the ante in the political debate over Libya, demanding the president give the American people and the Congress a better explanation of the mission and its cost.

Speaker John Boehner says the president has failed to answer this basic question. What is your benchmark for success in Libya? Let's discuss the political pressure and the president's broader strategic challenge with former under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns and CNN senior political analyst David Gergen who has advised four U.S. presidents.

Gentlemen, I want to get to the politics of this in just a minute, but first I want to get to the strategic questions about what's happening on the ground in Libya. Yes, there is a no-fly zone in place. Yes, Moammar Gadhafi is no longer flying his planes, but his elite forces are still on the attack, still in defiance of that have United Nations resolution so, Nic Burns, does the coalition now have an obligation to do more even though -- and they did some air strikes, if you start attacking those tanks closer in, in places like Misrata then you run the risk of civilian casualties going dramatically up here.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: John, I think there is a route forward and I think today was a very significant day in the short history of this conflict. The U.S. struck armored advanced brigades of Gadhafi's forces outside of Misrata and very close to Ajdabiya in the east, had some success in stopping Gadhafi's besiegement of both cities. And I think if the U.S. would just stay involved with the intensity of this air effort for say four or five or six days more, it could be that it really emboldens the opposition.

It allows them to counterattack because obviously what the Obama administration wants, they want Gadhafi to quit or they want the rebels to be so powerful that they can dislodge Gadhafi. What we don't want is a quagmire. So what worries me, John, is the announcement again today that the U.S. intends to turn command and control of this whole operation over to some unknown entity by as early as Saturday.

It might be NATO. It might be a coalition of the willing. I think if the U.S. could just stay with this for a few more days, it might help to achieve the kind of momentum that we clearly need. And the other significant thing that happened is that Mahmoud Gibril (ph), a well respected technocrat (ph), was named interim head of the opposition government in Benghazi. So they're trying to get their act together to have some political unity among the rebel forces. There are glimpses of some positive movement forward today at least from my point of view.

KING: So Nic sees positive movement, perhaps David, but he has that big question that Speaker Boehner is asking in his letter to the president tonight. That I think Americans sitting around their dinner table tonight are asking -- how long and what's the end game? To Nic's point about five, six -- four or five or six more days instead of two or three more days, do you think the president will heed that advice?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's not clear. It's one among many, many questions that are unanswered in Washington tonight as the president returns. What I think has become obvious and underscores what Nic has just been saying is that the -- that we've just gone through the early part and the easy part of this operation, that was to erect this no-fly zone.

It's now getting tougher because, yes, we're able to hit the tanks and the artillery on the outskirts of these towns, but we're having a lot of difficulty about what's going on inside the town with, say, snipers who represent Gadhafi. And so it's -- we're going to be -- I think the next five or six days are crucial to determining whether we can so degrade his military forces that we do have a coup or we do have the rebels do go on the march and then there are additional questions about you know whether we arm them and how we work with them.

But I think Nic is right. The next five or six days are really critical. Either we establish momentum that's going to shove Gadhafi out in the next five or six days or it's very likely we'll have a stalemate of some sort that could be protracted. You could see the alliance fraying and a lot of difficulties with that.

KING: In addition to having to make some tough decisions about what happens on the battlefield and how involved and how active the United States stays, the president also has to deal with this. He got home tonight to the White House. This was sitting in the Oval Office waiting for him, the letter from the House Speaker John Boehner who asked a number of questions and a number of questions many Democrats are asking, as well. Here's a big one Speaker Boehner puts to the president.

"You have stated that Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi must go, consistent with U.S. policy goals. But the U.N. resolution, the U.S. helped develop and signed on to makes clear that regime change is not part of this mission. In light of this contradiction, is it an acceptable outcome for Gadhafi to remain in power after the military effort concludes in Libya? If not, how will he be removed from power? Why would the United States commit American resources to enforcing a U.N. resolution that is inconsistent with our stated policy goals and national interests?"

David Gergen, it's a legitimate question from the speaker of the House there. How much is this pushback from the Congress going to complicate things?

GERGEN: I think Speaker Boehner has made a very shrewd move in sending that letter. It's given voice to what's already out there. It's put on one piece of paper in effect or one letter that all the kind of questions that are floating and the commentary about this and it's I think has put pressure on the president to act in a way we've been talking about over the last couple of days. It's no accident to me that the president came home early. You know, he came home this afternoon. He's now got the rest of the week to sit down with his own people, look at the full chessboard and then sit down with Congress and I would think he's going to do that within the next 36 hours and then the question becomes, John, is he going to go to the country?

I would assume trust -- I think he should go to the country whether he'll do it before this weekend or, say, wait as Nic is suggesting and do four, five more days of degrading and then by next week he may have a better picture to paint by early next weekend, then go to the country. But one way or the other he has to go to the country.

KING: Well Nic, you heard General Joulwan. You know him well from your days at the ambassador to NATO. Now he says he doesn't see a clarity of purpose, a clarity of mission on the part of the coalition and particularly on the part of the president of the United States. Do you see that clarity or is that one of the problems here that they don't -- even Denis McDonough, the president's deputy national security adviser, today told Wolf Blitzer, sure, the president has said he wants regime change, but that in the end is up to the people of Libya.

BURNS: Well John, I don't see the clarity. It's been the problem from day one. A no-flight zone is not a strategy. It's not stopping Gadhafi. It's not stopping his army. It can't protect the civilians. You need something more. And this is what's been missing from the American and allied effort, something more are these offensive air strikes that can help the rebel forces to advance.

What we want is for Gadhafi to leave. That's American policy. The U.N. Security Council resolution is a straitjacket for the United States. We've got to break out of that straitjacket and embolden the rebel forces to move forward. That means the United States needs to continue to lead. I was never terribly enthusiastic about going into Libya from the beginning. But now that we're there we should not want to fail. We should not want Gadhafi to survive this politically.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: I agree with that, Nic, and I also think Denis McDonough's statement as quoted, you know, leaves too much wiggle room. Leaving it up to the people of Libya is not our policy. It is our policy to make sure this actually happens. And I don't think -- I don't think that's -- an "if" in that. You know, whether they do it or if they do it. But Nic, isn't there a real problem with what we've agreed to under the U.N. resolution and what we've told our allies about how limited this is so that if you start arming the rebels to go on the offensive, isn't that a possible violation or isn't that in violation of the U.N. resolution itself?

BURNS: The mandate is to protect civilians and so the air strikes -- the U.S. military today in press conferences justified the air strikes today saying we're protecting civilians in besieged cities in Ajdabiya and Misrata, but the larger picture here is this. If we continue with the current strategy, we're heading towards either stalemate where neither side wins. That means Gadhafi survives and controls most of the country or I think an outright Gadhafi victory because currently the no-fly zone is not going to be sufficient to get the job done.

KING: Gentlemen, appreciate your insights, as always. We'll keep on top of this and we'll keep asking for your guidance.

Still ahead here, terror returns to Jerusalem today after a several-year absence. Israel's ambassador to the United States brings us the latest on the bombing and his take on whether these dramatic changes underway in the Middle East reduce or increase the risk of terrorism.

And next, more problems at Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Complex and new warnings water might not be safe for children because of radiation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Some critical work at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant stalled today when black smoked poured from one of the reactors forcing workers out of the control room before they could determine just how much of that equipment there still works. However, that setback has been overshadowed somewhat by a health scare in Tokyo where tests show radioactive iodine in the tap water at levels that make it unfit for infants. CNN's Anna Coren joins us from the city and Anna, officials are saying don't panic. Don't hoard bottled water. But what is the reaction?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I know, they're saying don't panic, John, but it's hard not to, particularly for those people who have been told, do not give your children drinking water. We are here in Tokyo, some 250 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and it's in greater Tokyo that they found those high levels of radiation.

Now, the reason officials are saying don't give it to babies it's because those levels are double what children should take in. Babies can take in -- they absorb radiation a lot quicker than what adults do. So, that is why that warning is going out and not to use that water in baby formula.

This is, obviously, causing concern. We're in a city of some 13 million people and as I say, we're a long way from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but officials are saying it is directly from that.

So, there is alerts, there is alarm, but people are saying, also don't stock up on water. Don't hoard the water. There will be plenty of supplies. The government will make sure of that, John.

KING: It's another development, Anna, that shakes people and has people asking questions. You went out today to explore the impact and you visited a fish market that's normally packed and crowded. How was it today? COREN: Yes, that's exactly right. We went to the Tsukiji fish market, which is like the biggest fish market in the world, and it was dead -- literally dead. I've been there before and it's packed. You know, you cannot -- you cannot move, but there were barely anybody there. Just the people who sell the fish and they are saying that traffic is down some 70 percent and the reason being is because of this contamination scare, the radiation scare that is not just here in Tokyo but obviously near the plants, the Fukushima plant.

A number of food items have been banned from sale and also from shipment, they include raw milk as well as a number of leafy vegetables, higher levels of radiation were found in those vegetables. So, those sales have been banned and that obviously has an effect to the fish, you know, because higher levels were also found in seawater off the plant.

So, it all has a knock-on effect and it's really hurting industry, and these people, you know, they're saying not only do we have these fears but also their supply is completely gone. The northeast coast of Japan, these were, you know, fishing villages, fishing towns that have been completely wiped out; all infrastructures completely gone.

So, this is just adding to the woes that this country is facing, John.

KING: Anna Coren, live for us, it is now Thursday morning in Tokyo -- Anna, thanks so much.

And with us again to talk over these alarming developments is Arnie Gundersen. He's a nuclear safety advocate and consultant with the Vermont state government about the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and is quite familiar with the design at the Fukushima complex.

Mr. Gundersen, let me start with the sense of fear about contamination. Again, the government is saying nowhere are the levels dangerous to adults. However, do you suspect that this is going to be with us for weeks, if not months?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN, CHIEF NUCLEAR ENGINEER, FAIREWINDS ASSOCIATES: I think near Fukushima it certainly will be, and I think there will be some areas that people won't get back into for years. You know, if you look at the way that wind has been blowing, it's still mainly out to sea -- so that it's being picked up in Tokyo, 150 miles to the south, is an indication that there's a lot of radioactivity in the environment right now.

KING: Well, we have some new pictures and let's look at some of them. Just in from NHK, you see white smoke coming out of reactor buildings one through four. White smoke, steam -- what does that tell you? Is it more than just normal steam?

GUNDERSEN: Well, the rule of thumb is if it's dark smoke it's probably oil, which could come from a transformer, you know, the big round things on the telephone pole outside your house or from a motor that catches fire. That's probably due from electricity going in and a component not working. But the white smoke is coming from evaporation, something in there is very, very hot and it's being cooled with seawater.

The problem with seawater is that it's 3 percent stuff, salt. And so, for every ton of water you put in, you're going to leave 60 pounds of muck behind and over time, it's going to clog up the fuel channels and make it harder to cool the plant.

KING: And we've been talking about this for some time now and most days, we've been talking about setbacks. Have you seen anything positive, anything that leads to you believe, OK, they're at least beginning to put the pieces together of a solution here?

GUNDERSEN: Well, there's two things. They have power back, and that's the first step and that will help. Obviously, they're going to have setbacks as motors catch fire and fuses blow and things like that. But getting power back is good.

The other thing is that the nuclear chain reaction, after the nuclear chain reaction ends, about 5 percent of the heat remains. But two weeks out, that's about down to about 3 percent, so they have a little bit less decay heat that they have to fight, which makes the effort a little easier.

KING: Arnie Gundersen, as always, we appreciate your insights on this important drama playing out and we'll keep in touch and we'll hope -- we'll hope for progress.

Ahead here: an explosion in Israel leaves one woman dead and more than 50 people wounded. Israelis and Palestinians say they don't want tensions to escalate. But what does today's violence mean for long- term stability in the region? The ambassador from Israel -- the Israeli ambassador to the United States right here live with us.

Stay here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

If you're just joining us, here's the latest you need to know right now:

Public health officials in Oregon says it's no health threat but an air monitor in Portland detected minuscule levels of radiation connected with Japan's nuclear emergency. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted to begin a safety review of all U.S. nuclear plants in light to what's happened in Japan. But, first update due in 30 days.

Two airliners landed Reagan National Airport here in Washington shortly after midnight this morning without ever hearing from the control tower. The FAA is investigating but won't comment on a report the controller may have fallen asleep. We'll keep on that story.

Ahead, after a four-year absence, terror returned to Jerusalem today. Israel's ambassador to the United States brings us the latest on this tragic bombing and his take on whether the dramatic changes underway in the Middle East affect the risk of terrorism. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: What many describe as a historic "Arab Spring" in the Middle East and North Africa was interrupted this morning by a bloody reminded old hatreds remain. It is a storyline we have heard before -- too many times.

Dateline: Jerusalem. We'll zoom in on the map here to show you.

A crowded bus stop, a bomb, sirens and stretchers. One dead and dozens injured. Yes, a sadly familiar storyline, but less familiar of late. It was the first bombing inside Jerusalem in four years.

Let's take a look at the scene.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

KING: You can se the tragic scene there of the rescue workers trying to help the hurt, the bus there blown up.

Michael Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States and he's with us live now.

First, our condolences for the-- to the...

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Thank you.

Thank you.

KING: What do you know about this and the investigation?

What happened?

OREN: Well, there was a suspicious object near the central bus station in Jerusalem. And a watchful store owner managed to call our equivalent of 911 and call it in. But the police couldn't get there in time and it blew up. And 50 people wounded, a woman dead, a 59- year-old woman dead, as yet unidentified. No organization has claimed responsibility for it, but we've had a -- a similar -- we've had a -- a terrorist attack just about a -- over a week ago where an entire family was murdered, two parents, three young children, including an -- an infant girl, were murdered in their homes. And a -- and a terrorist organization actually affiliated with the Al-Fattah party that runs the Palestinian Authority claimed credit for it. And since last weekend, that's the part of the country, about a million Israelis, have been hit by about 85 mortar shells and rockets from Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

KING: And so people look around the region and many people, especially in recent weeks, would see Tunisia, would see Egypt, a lot of questions about Libya, but would see, you know, anti-government, people in the streets expressing their rights and had hope for the region.

What about your particular small neighborhood in the region?

Are we going backward?

OREN: Well, we have hope for the region, too. We hope that -- that we'll be surrounded by democracies and they will be peace-loving democracies. But right now, as you know, there's also the continuity in the region. We have Hezbollah in Lebanon pointing 50,000 rockets at us and Hamas in Gaza shooting rockets at us and -- and no shortage of -- of terrorist groups, many of them backing by Iran and Syria, who still want to destroy Israel and don't want to negotiate with us.

So we have to be vigilant. We have to do whatever it takes to defend ourselves -- and we will do, to defend ourselves. But we also can't give up on peace.

KING: You -- you make that point, defending yourself. And, you know, as I said, this is a sadly familiar story line about buses and bombs and in the city.

Another part of that story line over the years has been critics of Israel saying that the response is often disproportionate.

What will happen here?

OREN: Well, we -- we are going to take whatever measures are necessary to defend ourselves against the Hamas rocket fire. You can't have a million Israelis under rocket fire. Any country in the world would do whatever it needed to do to defend its country.

We are going to try to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. We're going to try to get at the people who are shooting at our civilians. That's what distinguishes us from them.

We are doing our utmost to avoid civilian casualties. They are doing their utmost to inflict the maximum number on our side. And if we do inflict civilian casualties, we feel very remorseful about it. We very much regret them. On their side, they -- they celebrate them.

KING: If -- there have been a lot of rumbling privately in recent weeks that your government is not happy with some of the positions the Obama administration has taken about all these changes, to this -- in the sense that stability is what Israel prefers. And when you have all this uncertainty and Mubarak has to leave, what will happen with the peace treaty with Egypt?

Now you see these actions in Libya. Gadhafi no friend of Israel, by no means, but we don't know what will come next.

Is there a sense that the administration does not have a broad strategic policy here?

OREN: I think it's difficult to strategize about the entire region. Every country in the Middle East has -- poses its own challenges and has its own dynamics. I guarantee you there's nobody in the state of Israel who would like to see Moammar Gadhafi stay in office for another -- for another minute, much less another day.

KING: You've got a great intelligence service in Israel.

Is there any indication that he's actually trying to plot an exit strategy, as some have suggested in recent days, you know, phone calls from loyalists around to friends in the Arab world, saying, hey, what should I do here?

Any evidence that he is doing anything except being defiant?

OREN: Not that we know of. Not that we know of. But, again, we would not be in any way -- would not regret his passing from -- from the scene in the Middle East.

In Egypt, again, we would welcome the emergence of a -- of a democracy in the Middle East. We've long said that we're -- we've been the only democracy in the Middle East and we're proud of it, but we'd be happier still if we were surrounded by democracies, if they are committed to maintaining the peace.

KING: And when you -- when you look around -- now, well, let me ask you one more question about Libya before I move on.

There are many people who worry that if we get stalemate and the country is essentially partitioned and the opposition keeps Benghazi, maybe picks up another city or two in the east, Gadhafi keeps the west and Tripoli, that he will still have oil at some point. They -- people think he will find his way around any sanctions.

Do you think, if Moammar Gadhafi is allowed to stay, that he would go back to being a sponsor of terrorism and that he would look to retaliate against those who are dropping bombs on this country right now?

OREN: I think there's no underestimating the -- the viciousness of Moammar Gadhafi. This is a person who has blown airplanes out of the sky. He's been involved in assassinations. He's -- he's shot at his own people. I think it would be a mistake to in any way underestimate the -- his ability to -- to murder, to take revenge, to be a danger not only to his neighboring countries, but to his own people.

KING: If that's the case, then, would it be a failure if the end result of this coalition left Moammar Gadhafi in power?

OREN: No, I'm going to get into, you know, second-guessing the president of the United States about the outcome of this. This is an American initiative, an American policy. We are going to support President Obama and the administration and the allies of the United States and taking any measures that will, we believe, contribute to greater peace and stability in North Africa and throughout the Middle East.

KING: Are you comfortable, is Israel comfortable with the United States getting into the back seat, as described by the administration, in several days and letting the French and -- and the Brits and perhaps the UAE will get involved, perhaps Qatar will be involved in some way?

Or would you prefer, as long as this is continuing, in your backyard, that the United States be in the lead?

OREN: I think that it's a -- it's a difficult call for the president of the United States. Again, we're not going to be in the business of dictating or giving our advice to him in this matter. I think it's very important that the United States and its allies show a united front in -- in standing up to tyranny and terror in the Middle East. And I think that sends a message to the enemies that we have in common, particularly the regime in Iran.

KING: But when you look -- and it's hard to answer the questions definitively -- when you look at Bahrain and the protests, Yemen and the protests, Syria and protests, what is the biggest question Israel has?

Is it a question of is Iran winning here?

OREN: Well, we think that Iran thinks it's winning here. We've noticed a -- a major escalation in arms supplies that the Iranians have been sending to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. A couple weeks ago, we saw two Iranian warships go through the Suez Canal for the first time and take what amounted to a victory lap in the Eastern Mediterranean because Iran has essentially gained a major foothold in Lebanon, where a Hezbollah puppet government has taken over there.

And that has been a very important event, which has gone very much under the radar screen here in the United States.

KING: Under the radar screen including at the White House, or do you mean just in the American media?

OREN: No, the media has been less focused on it. It -- it's less visual than -- than -- than great demonstrations in Tahrir Square. But it is an event of -- of historical importance and -- and could be a very dangerous turning point in the Middle East.

So Iran, I think, believes right now that it -- that it's on a sort of a -- a winning sort of role in the Middle East. It's yet to be seen whether largely Arab populations will look to Iran, a Shiite country which has shot at its own civilians, that are -- who are protesting for peace and democracy, as a -- as any kind of model. Our hope is that they would not.

KING: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for coming in.

I wish it were under better circumstances.

But I hope you'll come back as all this plays out and we'll see what the ramifications for the region, including your country, is.

Thank you so much for coming in.

OREN: Thank you. KING: Up next here, the death of Elizabeth Taylor. Her friend and CNN legend Larry King joins us to reflect and we trace the actress' steps right here in Washington.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The iconic Elizabeth Taylor died today at the age of 79, a 70-year career, more than 50 movies and many appearances here in Washington.

Let's take a look at a few. This not in Washington but this here -- doesn't want to come up. Here we go. That's the Republican convention with Nancy Reagan back in 1980. You see the smiles here and the look as Ronald Reagan spoke at the Republican convention. Notice that one.

Here's one here among her husbands, Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, who issued a statement today thanking her for her help in his political career.

One other we'll show you here, this is Elizabeth Taylor testifying before the Congress on a fight dear to her heart, pushing for more money for AIDS activism and AIDS research -- this before a congressional committee back in 1986.

A bit earlier today, I talked to our legend, Larry King, who was a close friend of Elizabeth Taylor. Four times she was on "LARRY KING LIVE." I asked Larry what she was like as a friend.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LARRY KING, CNN LEGEND: She was herself, John. She was -- she was so many things.

She was intensely loyal and when she got involved in something, it was 100 percent. When AIDS was blossoming, she was the first to enlist others to get on board. She almost grabbed you by the lapels and said you must fight this disease.

If she liked you, if she were your friend, you could do no wrong. Whatever happened in the career of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor was in his corner.

She was also an incredible actress, two Academy Awards. She changed the screen. She showed that you can be beautiful and at the same time be very talented. A lot of times, beauty can get in the way when someone is very pretty, we can't appreciate how good a talent they are.

She was an amazing person. She was -- she loved her diamonds. She loved her men. She -- I know she said about her soul mates in her life, but the one real love of her life she told me once was Mike Todd, the great film producer who died in a plane crash.

She was a piece of work. She was everything. John, you would have loved her, John. J. KING: You had many remarkable conversations with her over the years and in one of them, back in 2006, you asked her if she believed in life after death, if she believed in reincarnation.

L. KING: She said she did. Well, if Elizabeth -- if reincarnation is, in fact, a fact, that means Elizabeth Taylor is going to come back. As what, John? How would you bring Elizabeth Taylor back?

J. KING: We live in a culture now where it's not a surprise and it's, in fact, sometimes sadly I would say expected that the personal lives of our celebrities and all their warts and all their faults play out in the public sphere. Back in the day, that was not the case, but it was for Elizabeth Taylor.

L. KING: If there's a paparazzi hall of fame, she's going in as the first one. She made that -- she realized that she became what -- I guess the word "tabloid," if you look up tabloid, it should have her picture. But she was so much more than that because a lot of times we think of tabloid as not being talented, as just being famous for being famous.

She was -- she was famous because she deserved to be famous. You couldn't over -- in a sense make her more famous than she was. She was something. She was special.

There'll never be another Elizabeth Taylor. And, John, you will never see eyes like that again, ever.

J. KING: That's a sad statement there but they are spectacular eyes.

Let me ask you this in closing, my friend. And it's a tough question for a guy who is used to asking the questions, answer this one -- if you had to pick one, if you could only pick one and you have to watch an Elizabeth Taylor film, what would it be?

L. KING: This may surprise you it would be "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in which she played an unattractive woman, brilliantly, in which she was willing to say, "I don't have to be beautiful. I can be a torrid, angry housewife in love but not in love with my husband, with an imaginary son, with a young couple over at the house that I'm berating, with my hair in tatters" -- "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

J. KING: A legend reflecting on the great legend we have lost today. Larry, thanks for coming in.

L. KING: Thanks, John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Hope you'll be here tomorrow. That's all for us.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.