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THE SITUATION ROOM

Petraeus Testifies; Conflict in Israel; Interview With Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez

Aired November 16, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And scandal takes a backseat as David Petraeus testifies before Congress. We will talk to a lawmaker who was inside the hearing on the Benghazi attack.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The skies over Israel and Gaza keep lighting up in a deadly exchange of rocket fire and airstrikes. Israel is accusing Hamas of escalating the fighting by firing rockets the landed near the major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israeli officials taking steps to prepare for a ground war if it comes to that.

We have correspondents standing by in Israel and in Gaza.

First, let's go to CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He's in Ashkelon, Israel. That's just north of Gaza.

What's the latest there, Fred?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

What's going on is that there are Israeli warplanes in the skies. We can hear them flying toward the border with Gaza. We have also heard several impacts that seem to have been coming from Gaza. However there is also rocket fire coming out of Gaza and rockets that have actually landed here in Ashkelon. I personally was at the site of two of those rockets that hit here throughout the days.

Local officials tell me those were Grad rockets, which are among the largest ones that the militants in Gaza are able to fire over here. The other thing we did today is we actually spoke with residents here in Ashkelon and they say basically what they're trying to do right now is they're trying to stay inside as much as possible.

Of course, you have these air sirens going off all the time, you have the children for them, it's very, very traumatizing at this point in time, and really the people here tell us they hope all of this is over as fast as possible. But they also say they have taken so much rocket fire in the time leading up to this offensive that they felt something like a strike by the Israeli military against militants in Gaza was very necessary from their point of view.

BLITZER: Are the civilians in Ashkelon where you are, are they living in fear right now? Are they trying to go on with their lives? Give us a little flavor. PLEITGEN: No. Actually, I was quite surprised. Certainly, people are trying to go on with their lives, but it's much more difficult than you would think.

I was actually on the road here with the mayor of the town. We went to various places, commercial districts, and literally almost every here shop in this town is either closed or totally empty. There's a marina here which normally especially on a Friday night is a place that people go, people go to hang out. There was maybe three or four people here.

And they tell us normally there are thousands of people here. The folks here really are staying inside. Being in Ashkelon, which is a town that generally does take rockets every once in awhile from Gaza, people here have something like a routine, but right now all people can do is try to stay inside, especially if they hardened shelters.

I spoke to one family that they said what they did today is they went from their house to their parent's house, and they really said they had to plan their route to see that there was always a hardened shelter near to where they were in case they were outside and rockets fell on the area where they were -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Frederik Pleitgen in Ashkelon in Israel for us, thank you.

Rival Palestinian factions are united by Israel's strikes on Gaza. The Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, the president is calling the Israeli offensive, and I'm quoting Mahmoud Abbas now "an aggression against all the Palestinian people."

Kate Bolduan is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. She's ready to pick up the story.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely.

Medical sources in Gaza now tell CNN that 30 people have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Three Israelis have died in the fighting as well.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent Sara Sidner, who is in Gaza, for more on this.

Sara, what are you seeing on the ground?

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, it's been eerily quiet question for the last hour.

Before then, this place was just rattling with bombs, whether it was rockets going toward Israel or airstrikes here in Gaza city. We saw for ourselves dozens of rockets that trail from the rockets in the air. But we also felt the rattling in our teeth, literally, this building rattling from the airstrikes that followed.

What we also saw were neighborhoods where some buildings have been bombed out, where you can see pockmarks from shrapnel. We know that at least eight children have been killed. We know there are now 30 people in total dead. So far, we know nine of those militants. One includes one of Hamas' military commanders.

We know Israel is trying to do targeted strikes, but some of the civilians here are saying these airstrikes are hitting in their neighborhoods, killing their women and killing their children, so a lot of people here upset and scared. The roads here are quiet, and this is a place, we have to remember, that is an extremely densely populated, one of the most densely populated cities in the entire world.

It has been eerily quiet on the roads. You see almost nobody walking along on the roads. You see very, very few cars. Most of the cars actually are the journalists here trying to see what the city looks like, trying to get to people to talk to them. It's a very difficult situation, and certainly the civilians here feel like war has already come to town.

BOLDUAN: That's what I was going to ask you. You have been there on the ground, you're watching this all unfold. I'm sure, from the outside looking in, it seems like things are getting worse. Is that what it feels like for residents as well as -- you're there as well.

SIDNER: Yes, compared to last night even. We were seeing bombings over and over again. It's definitely been more today.

We were up until about 7:00 a.m. We stayed up for 24 hours, and until about 7:00 a.m., there was a massive airstrike. We were inside of a hotel. My photographer Dan and I had to lie down on the floor because it got so close to us. Then, after that, there was a bit of a lull, and then it started up again, we went outside, looked in the air, and you could see the telltale trail of rocket fire and it was crisscrossed all over the sky.

And the bombings have continued since then. We talked to a family who lost a child. We went to the hospital where we saw every 15 minutes or so ambulances pulling up, even people just bringing people without an ambulance to the hospital, and that place is certainly overwhelmed, for sure, the doctors there saying they just want peace, they can't believe how many people have been coming in.

We're talking about now more than 120 people injured and 30 people dead.

BOLDUAN: Sara Sidner in Gaza for us.

As Sara said, our medical sources say 30 people now have been killed by Israeli airstrikes according to sources there and three Israelis have died in the fighting as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jerusalem went on high alert with sirens wailing as two rockets hit an open area south of the city today. It's new evidence that Hamas now has weapons that can reach farther right into the heart of Israel. Tom Foreman is showing us the firepower on both sides of this conflict.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf.

Let's take a look at how the battlefield is shaping up over there in the Middle East. Here is Israel alongside the Mediterranean Ocean. It's about the size of New Jersey, 7.5 million people, 75 percent Jewish. The economy is good, unemployment below 7 percent right now.

Gaza, by comparison, quite small, geographically, only twice as big as Washington, D.C. It is predominantly Palestinian. The unemployment rate is very high there and the economy is quite bad.

GlobalFirepower.com has called Israel the 10th most powerful military in the world. Let's break that down here. They have compulsory military service, which means that every young person must go into the military for a while. They have 176,000 active troops, a half million they can call up from the reserves if need be.

Ground forces very strong, about 3,000 tanks. If you count all the mortars, artillery units and armored personnel carriers, you get up to about 12,000 units on the ground they can call up. And their military is very formidable, about 800 aircraft, including some 200 helicopters. And that's what they largely use to pound away at their perceived enemies over in Gaza.

If you look at the forces that Hamas has, very, very different picture. If you take almost everybody under uniform there officially, you get about 12,500 troops and nothing like the weapons that they over here. But Palestinian militants do have a lot of rockets. You hear about them all the time, and that's what's making the news.

Let me bring in a model of one here life-size actually. This is a Kassam 2 rocket. These are popular because they're cheap and easy to make out of steel tubes. They only weigh about 70 to 100 pounds. They're fuelled essentially by fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, and they can pack quite a punch.

They're not very accurate, but if you fire enough of them, they don't have to be very accurate. And if you go to some of their more advanced rockets and missiles, you also start talking about range at that point. Look at what we have seen in conflict, some weapons fired out of Gaza here have actually reached all the way out other Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. That's about 50 miles away. That's one of the reasons that officials in Israel are saying they simply can't tolerate this going on any further. Too many people are being threatened and that's why talking about, at least hinting at a possible ground invasion of Gaza -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thank you.

Stand by. We will have much more on the crisis in the Middle East. I will speak with a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and ask if a ground invasion is in the work. I will also speak with a Palestinian official about Iran's possible role in this conflict.

And also we're going inside today's testimony by David Petraeus. I will talk to a lawmaker who was in the hearing room when they heard what he had to say about the Benghazi attack.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The former CIA director, David Petraeus, on Capitol Hill today testifying to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Afterward, partisan differences remained over the Obama administration's characterization of the assault, specifically the remarks by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: General Petraeus' briefing was comprehensive.

REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER (D), MARYLAND: It goes to show that when you try to get information out very quickly, and because of Congress wanting to hear about it, the administration, and media, that the information with respect to intelligence evolves and changes, and as soon as they received additional information, they clarified it.

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: What is very clear is that Ambassador Rice used the talking points that the Intelligence Committee had all signed off on.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The key is that they were unclassified talking points at a very early stage. And I don't think she should be pilloried for this.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: If she had stuck with the talking points, were they correct? They were. She went beyond that.

REP. HOWARD "BUCK" MCKEON (R), CALIFORNIA: I still think there is some confusion within the administration as to what they have said or what they think or what they know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Clearly differing opinions there.

Let's get more with the Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for your time. Has anything over the last two days, Congressman, changed your mind about what happened in Benghazi?

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), ILLINOIS: A couple of things.

Maybe we should put a warning sign when the first information comes out, a warning sign. And let me just say that General Petraeus, when he first gave us the information on the 13th and the 14th of September, for those of us who have been able to see it, there was a warning there. It said, this is information that is developing and can change. It is based on the best sources we have.

Remember, there is a conflict, a war going on here. There are rockets, there are bullets, there are mortars. There are people that have died. And we're gathering information, both from human sources and from electronic sources. It's the best information we had that today, and a mistake was made.

And here's the mistake. The mistake that was made -- but it's been clarified already, this is not new. The mistake that was made was that there was a protest that developed into an escalation and taking over of the consulate's facilities there in Benghazi which ended in the death of the ambassador and another State Department personnel, and escalated further in the death of two members of the CIA.

BLITZER: What you're saying now, Congressman, is that there was no protest at all, is that what you're saying? It was just strictly an assault on that diplomatic mission?

GUTIERREZ: No, here is what the best intelligence gives us. Right?

And these were part of the talking points, Wolf, that you heard that Ambassador Rice had, right, that there was an attack on our embassy in Egypt that escalated, and actually they scaled the walls in Egypt. That inspired people to take action, enemies of the United States, terrorist enemies of the United States to take action and to attack the Benghazi facility.

But it wasn't -- didn't come from a protest and then escalate. They came there to do that. But it wasn't something that was preplanned. And there weren't only terrorists, but there were many opportunists, thieves, who simply were there to take what they could, and take it back home with them.

That's the difference. And, look, but I just want to say that General Petraeus gave us this information. He told us and with the caveat that this was information. We did not get, as we say, the video information until about two weeks later. That really clarified a lot of things for everyone in the intelligence community.

BOLDUAN: I want you to listen to your colleague. He's also the chairman of House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King. He came out of the briefing and just -- and talked about the talking points and what Susan Rice said. Listen to how he characterized what he learned.

GUTIERREZ: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R-NY), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The original talking points were much more specific about al Qaeda involvement.

And yet the final ones just said indications of extremists. And no one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points, other than to say the original talking points prepared by the CIA were different from the ones that were finally put out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Is he right?

GUTIERREZ: Here is what happens.

Well, you know, you can always make something right by leaving something out. Here is what happens. In order to get the talking points, I hope America understands this, the CIA is only part of our intelligence community. They're only part of the intelligence community that gathers information to keep a threat and to warn us of possible attacks and to tell us how it is we should proceed.

Now, all of that intelligence community, including the DOJ and other -- and State Department, together, prepare the talking points. So everybody contributes, and there is then a synthesis of all of that information which turns into the talking points.

I just want to make it clear to everyone that those talking points were at the request of the Intelligence Committee of the House and the Senate. We asked them. And let me be clear. I have been there two years. This is the first time I can remember that we have asked them for this kind of information.

It isn't -- so it's something new. And in the cloud of war, things get left out. But he did say they were extremists. And in the negligence community, extremists and terrorists are almost interchangeable terms. And remember that we're trying to gather information, gather information from people talking on phones, gather information from our people in our field.

And sometimes you lose stuff in translation, which when the fog clears, you clear it up. And that's what has happened here.

BLITZER: Congressman, we have got to leave it right there.

Certainly a lot more questions that are going to be asked and answered we hope in the weeks and months to come. Appreciate it very much.

GUTIERREZ: I absolutely agree, and I think we will get to the bottom of it and we will clear it up even further.

BLITZER: Yes, and there's an investigation under way at the State Department as well. Will see what Ambassador Tom Pickering can come up with.

It's an eerily familiar site, an explosion and fire on an oil rig off of Louisiana's coast -- new details emerging.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Israel, is it on the verge of a ground war against Gaza? Up next, I will ask the spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He will join us from Jerusalem.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: U.S. officials blame Hamas for starting the conflict, but are urging Israel to be measured in its response.

BOLDUAN: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Israel and the Palestinians need to negotiate a more permanent peace in the region.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, who has been working very hard on this story.

Barbara, what is the U.S. military most concerned about here?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Kate, up first, the big concern, escalation, and escalation in the way of Israeli ground troops going into Gaza.

I have talked to U.S. officials today and they say this is the number one concern. If Israel sends ground troops and tanks across the border into Gaza, this will be an escalation that will be very difficult to pull back from, because here's the calculation. Once you do that, will Hamas stop the rocket attacks? That's what Israel wants, that's what the U.S. wants to see. Will everybody take a deep breath?

So Leon Panetta has made phone calls to the Israelis. Yes, you have the right to self-defense, but let's try not to have this escalate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton firing up the diplomatic phone lines in the last several hours and days. She's talked to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, all of the countries in the region trying to get some calmness put into the situation.

But make no mistake, it is Hamas, the U.S. believes and Israel believes, that need to stop the rocket attacks. The de-escalation message came right from the State Department. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: In all cases, her message has been the same, that we are urging a de-escalation of this conflict. We're urging those countries with influence on Hamas and other groups in Gaza to use that influence to get a de-escalation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: And, of course, throughout the weekend, Kate, Wolf, we all will be watching all of our CNN colleagues in Gaza and Israel keeping an eye on that border, keeping an eye on this situation around the clock. BOLDUAN: Yes, developing as we speak.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us tonight -- thanks so much, Barbara.

STARR: Sure.

BLITZER: U.S. officials certainly have very good reason to be deeply worried about a ground war. Israeli officials are making it clear they're ready to go into Gaza if they feel they have no other choice.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now from Jerusalem, Mark Regev. He's the spokesman for the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mark, how close are you to a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza?

MARK REGEV, SPOKESMAN FOR NETANYAHU: Good to be with you, Wolf.

We're taking all the necessary preparations. I can tell you a final decision is being made. Obviously, we'll keep our options close to our chests, though talking about operational matters, but we are ready to escalate if need be.

BLITZER: There are reports that tens of thousands of Israeli reserve soldiers are potentially being readied to demobilize. Are those reports true?

REGEV: Yes, tonight the Israeli cabinet voted, and I believe allowed to enlist some 75,000 Israeli reservists. Once again, that's to give the leadership options. We have the option to escalation; we have the option to deescalate. Our goal is, of course, to bring peace to our frontier, to end those ongoing bombardments from Hamas- controlled Gaza into Israel. That's our goal.

BLITZER: Is there any indication those bombardments are slowing down or getting ready to stop?

REGEV: I'm afraid we had another bad day in Israel, though I'm glad to say we didn't have fatalities. We had missiles being shot on cities throughout Israel, throughout the south. And of course, you know air raid sirens were also sounded in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which is not a daily occurrence.

But it's their belief that, through our actions so far, we have significantly depleted their missile stocks. And what they're shooting at us now is their leftovers. We think we're getting the upper hand, and as this operation continues, we're going to neutralize the missile threat that the Israeli civilian population has been living under for too long.

BLITZER: The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, says what Israel is doing now in Gaza, in his words, "is an aggression against all Palestinian people." Have you communicated with President Mahmoud Abbas?

REGEV: I'm not aware that we've had direct communications with him. I can say the following. If there's anyone wants to talk about aggression, it's aggression from Gaza into Israel. Ultimately, our operation is defensive. I wish we didn't have to do it.

But ultimately, we had a situation where our border with Gaza, our communities, we had missile after missile, missile after missile targeting Israeli cities, not for days, Wolf, not for weeks, but for months now. And our civilian population was living in bomb shelters. It just couldn't go on. We had to act to defend our civilian population. We had to act to protect our people.

BLITZER: They say, the Palestinians in Gaza, that you, Israel, started this by killing their military commander in that air strike the other day. As a result of that, they're taking these actions. What do you say to that argument?

REGEV: I'd say it wasn't like it was quiet before we took out that man, that particular individual. We had three cycles of escalation over the last month or so, all of them initiated by Hamas.

And what happened is, when they said, "Well, we've had enough," they quieted things down, and so we quieted things down. But that actually gave them the initiative. That meant that they had a green light to open fire whenever they thought to.

And we said, "Enough is enough. This just can't go on."

Earlier this week, I went with Prime Minister Netanyahu down to an Israeli city of about 150,000 people, close to the border with Gaza. And we met a schoolgirl, and she said something to me which moved me and I think moved the prime minister, as well.

She said that when school children across the planet hear a bell, they think, you know, a lesson is starting or a lesson is over, it's time to go back home. When schoolgirls and schoolboys in southern Israel hear a bell, it's usually a siren. It means they have 15 or 20 seconds to run to a bomb shelter. That's how they've grown up. That's what they're used to.

It just can't go on. And we're taking steps now to end that.

BLITZER: I know the prime minister spoke with President Obama the other day. Have there been any more recent conversations?

REGEV: We're having ongoing diplomatic contacts with, of course, the American administration, and of course, with other leaders around the world.

I mean, ultimately, we're being warmed with welcome. What we've heard from leaders across the planet that says, you know, Israel has the right to defend itself, that these missiles must end, that Hamas is responsible for this escalation.

We've welcomed those comments, and we are acting now, ultimately what any country would do in our situation. I mean, Wolf, if you look around the planet, there are not a lot of countries whose governments would sit quietly and do nothing while their people were being rocketed by terrorists from across the frontier. And Israel is doing what I think any country would do in our situation.

BLITZER: Mark Regev is the spokesman for the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Mark, thanks very much for joining us.

REGEV: My pleasure, sir.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to get a reaction from the other side of the conflict just ahead. A top Palestinian official right here in Washington is in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stand by for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just getting a statement from the White House. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, called President Obama today to get an update on the situation in Israel and Gaza. The prime minister expressed his thanks to the United States for funding what's called the Iron Dome rocket and warning defense system, which has been effective, the prime minister says, in defeating what he says hundreds of incoming rockets from Gaza, saving countless Israeli lives.

And then, the White House statement said this: "The president reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives. The two leaders discussed options for deescalating the situation," but didn't go into details what those options are.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now is Maen Rashid Areikat. He's the PLO representative here in Washington.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

MAEN RASHID AREIKAT, PLO REPRESENTATIVE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Hamas right now. Why are they doing this? Why are they launching all these rockets and missiles into Israel?

AREIKAT: Well, I think you have to look at the situation, Wolf. This all started on October 23 when the Israelis killed Palestinians on the border, and Hamas and other factions in Gaza.

You have to remember there are other factions in Gaza who are also threatening (ph). And it's not necessarily under the control of Hamas. They (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by firing missiles, and Israel attacked again, killed five more Palestinians. And then two days ago, they took out the military commander of -- Azabiri (ph) al-Qassam, which is the military wing of Hamas. So...

BLITZER: There have been rockets coming in all year, though.

AREIKAT: This is true. There has been a cycle of violence back and forth between the two sides, but I think the recent escalation, you have to look at the progress of events in Gaza since October 23. It does indicate, I believe, a deliberate intention on the part of Israel.

BLITZER: Why would Israel want to do that, and jeopardize not only the southern part of Israel but areas up to Tel Aviv and now even Jerusalem? What the Israelis argue is that no country would allow itself to simply allow rocket-fire coming in from Gaza.

AREIKAT: This is true, and I think the Israelis were not anticipating that Hamas would have such long-range missiles to be able to reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

This escalation of violence is not going to serve anybody's interests. I think that our civilian deaths on the part of the Palestinian side, with 24 so far, 200 wounded. Israelis also will be killed there. I don't think that the escalation is going to serve anybody's interests, but Israel must understand that the only way to stop the hostilities on the barriers is to try to deal with the root causes of this conflict.

BLITZER: What is Iran's role in all of this? Because there's a lot of suspicions that some of these were Iranian provided to the Palestinians in Gaza, that Iran wants to divert attention from its own nuclear program from Syria, and as a result, has allowed this situation to escalate: Palestinian rockets coming into Israel and Israeli retaliation.

AREIKAT: Well, I can't -- I can't really confirm whether the Iranians or the people are providing weapons to the Gaza Strip. I heard some reports earlier that some of it came from Libya, from the Sinai Desert. There are no confirmation of the source of these weapons.

But you have to also remember that Hamas does have some capabilities to develop their own rockets within the Gaza Strip, and they have been doing that for quite some time.

BLITZER: But they're very unreliable. Aren't you concerned that, if they're going after targets in Jerusalem, the West Bank is right there? East Jerusalem is right there. Palestinian Arabs could be killed in this process, as well.

AREIKAT: Well, I think the issue here is to try to remind the Israelis that the military solution is not going to be feasible.

Four years ago, Israel went into the Gaza Strip. Fifteen hundred Palestinians were killed; 5,000 were wounded. And what happened? Nothing. Today, we are repeating the same episode once again.

Israel today is not more secure than it used to be 10 years ago. The longer they delay the political solution with the Palestinians, to try to deal and address the root causes of this conflict, which is, in my view, the continued Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian people, the more we are going to witness...

BLITZER: They withdrew from Gaza and handed it over, the Palestinians. But they're not occupying Gaza.

AREIKAT: True, but it has been under siege since Israel withdrew its forces in 2005. Nobody can leave the Gaza Strip; 1.8 million Palestinians are under siege. They cannot leave freely or enter the Gaza Strip freely. Israel controls the Gaza Strip. Basically, Israel turned the Gaza Strip into a big jail, a big prison.

BLITZER: What about the U.S.? Are you satisfied with the role that the Obama administration is playing in trying to ease this crisis?

AREIKAT: Well, I think the U.S. should play a stronger, more active role. It's not enough to say that we understand Israel's right to defend itself.

And it's not fair to compare the situation as two equal parties fighting. Israel has a very, very strong military, and they can really cause a lot of destruction in the Gaza Strip. The -- the portrayal that these are two equal, warring parties is not fair.

BLITZER: Are you telling Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas, telling Hamas stop it? Don't launch any more rockets into Israel?

AREIKAT: I think it takes two to tango...

BLITZER: But do you want them? Based off, presumably, the Israelis'...

AREIKAT: We -- you understand the unfortunate political situation between the PLO and Hamas and...

BLITZER: They're rivals.

AREIKAT: Well, I mean, in our -- in the case of this Israeli onslaught on Gaza, the people who are losing their lives, the victims, are innocent Palestinians. They are Palestinians who we very much care about.

BLITZER: A few military commanders are losing their lives as well.

AREIKAT: Well, you know, I mean, one of them was. Maybe some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) working. But the majority, of course, are civilians, and it does cause us a lot of pain to see Palestinian civilians, innocent civilians be killed.

BLITZER: But I assume President Abbas wants the Hamas forces to stop shelling Israel?

AREIKAT: Well, we want the Israelis also to stop their provocation. I mean, Israel has taken out of this particular commander on Wednesday, what did the Israelis expect in return from Hamas or from the other factions? Did they expect them to send them a thank you letter? They knew that Hamas would retaliate. I think Israel is also to blame for this escalation and the situation in the Gaza Strip.

BLITZER: Maen Areikat is the PLO representative here in Washington. Maen, thanks very much for joining us. We'll have to continue, unfortunately, this conversation. Thanks very much.

AREIKAT: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: Up next, the first face to face in an urgent effort to keep the U.S. from going over the fiscal cliff. If bipartisan -- is bipartisanship on the horizon? The surprising details from today's White House meeting.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama sat down at the White House with congressional leaders from both parties today to confront the so- called fiscal cliff. Sever spending cuts and huge tax hikes for everyone will kick in in just over six weeks unless they can reach a deal on debt reduction. The president spoke before the meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we're all aware that we have some urgent business to do. We've got to make sure that taxes don't go up on middle-class families, that our economy remains strong, and that creating jobs. And that's an agenda that Democrats and Republicans and independents, people all across the country share.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It was a pretty important meeting, Kate, over at the White House today.

BOLDUAN: It was a very important meeting, Wolf. I mean, this was really the first face to face, and the first is always important, even though it's just the beginning, as top leaders kicked off negotiations of how to avoid the looming economic crisis that we have dubbed the fiscal cliff facing -- that we're facing at the beginning of the new year.

They didn't strike a deal in the meeting. They didn't talk numbers, so to speak, but they did emerge optimistic, confident they'd get there, and all saying the same word. It was constructive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: To show our seriousness, we've put revenue on the table as long as it's accompanied by significant spending cuts. And while we're going to continue to add revenue on the table, it's going to be incumbent for my colleagues to show the American people that we're serious about cutting spending and solving our fiscal dilemma.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: We have the cornerstones of being able to work something out. We're both going to have to give up some of the things that we know are a problem.

We feel very comfortable with each other, and this isn't something we're going to wait until the last day of December to get it done. We have a plan. We're going to move forward on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: That was noteworthy. Not everything that they were saying, but that unusual show of force after the closed door meeting. All the top congressional leaders of both parties standing together before cameras and reporters.

I'm told by aides on both sides of the aisle that actually wasn't planned before...

BLITZER: Well, whatever...

BOLDUAN: ... but it clearly sends a positive signal. In the Rose following the meeting and even ended up for the day.

But make no mistake: despite the positive, optimistic outlook, there's still a tremendous amount of work to be done, according to Speaker Boehner's office. He offered a -- the framework that he talked about publicly, setting targets for tax and entitlement reform now, buying time to hash out details later.

But Senate Democratic aides tell me any framework would need a down payment on both tax reform and entitlement reform now. Not dumping everything to 2013.

The major sticking point? You probably know this already. The Bush-era tax cuts. I'm also told by Democratic aides that Senator Reid in the meeting made clear that they are standing firm against extending the tax cut for high-income earners. That's the major sticking point. It was before; it remains the same right now.

BLITZER: Let's see if they can get it resolved.

There was a lighthearted moment at the meeting today, as well.

BOLDUAN: There rarely are, and there actually was, Wolf. It surprised everyone in the room other than President Obama. He wished Speaker Boehner an early happy birthday. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Wait, wait, excuse me, there's actually one other point that I wanted to make, and that is that my understanding is tomorrow is Speaker Boehner's birthday. So for those of you who want to wish him a happy birthday, we will -- we're not going to embarrass him with a cake, because we didn't know how many candles were needed, but...

BOEHNER: Yes, right.

OBAMA: But we do want to wish him a happy birthday.

BOEHNER: Thank you. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: So he is right. The speaker is turning 63 tomorrow. Happy birthday, Mr. Speaker.

BLITZER: Did he get a little emotional?

BOLDUAN: He didn't get emotional, but we're going to show this right now. You can see -- I believe you can see the -- Mike Sommers, the speaker's chief of staff walking out with a little gold bag in his hand. That is a gift from the president. He gave him a bottle of wine. And the speaker's spokesman, Brendan Hoffman (ph), he actually tweeted a picture right there of the bottle of wine.

BLITZER: Nice -- nice, indeed. Thank you. Nice moment.

She's New York City's silent star, going viral in the days and weeks since Sandy. Now the mayor, Michael Bloomberg's popular signer is telling CNN what she thinks of all the attention.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You might call her New York City's silent star. The signer who rose to fame standing by the mayor, Michael Bloomberg's, side in Sandy's wake. Here's CNN's Alina Cho.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the hours before, during and after Superstorm Sandy, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's press briefings were critical.

Yet often it was someone else who caught everyone's eye. Lydia Callis, the mayor's mesmerizing sign language interpreter.

JON STEWART, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE DAILY SHOW": Whose expressive sign-language interpreting turned disaster press briefings into an Alvin Ailey sign language recital.

CHO: Her signs are set to music.

(MUSIC: "I saw the signs...")

(MUSIC: Psy's "Gangnam Style")

CHO: And this on "Saturday Night Live." FRED ARMISEN, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": And a special thanks to my sign language translator, Lydia Callis, who brought some pizzazz to what would otherwise have been a dour occasion.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK CITY: I did want to bring -- did you see "Saturday Night Live"?

LYDIA CALLIS, SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETER: I did.

BLOOMBERG: Thought so.

CHO: Callis arrived for our interview with her own interpreter.

CHO (on camera): Were you surprised by the reaction?

CALLIS: I actually was very surprised, actually. I was a bit overwhelmed. But at the same time I thought, like, wow, this is great. If this will shine light and bring it to the deaf community, and the culture and the language is a beautiful thing, then I'm all for it.

CHO (voice-over): Two to four out of every 1,000 Americans are functionally deaf.

(on camera) What's this all about, when you were doing that?

CALLIS: This is the sign for a storm.

CHO: OK.

CALLIS: Then you have wind. You go like this.

CHO (voice-over): Alice's mom and three siblings are deaf. Sign language was her first language.

CALLIS: If you watched any of the news reports, you could see that I was signing, but I was also mouthing the words, as well, because you have people that are -- that are completely deaf, cannot read lips, cannot speak and rely solely on sign language.

And then you have people at the complete other end of the spectrum who are oral and can speak for themselves and have some hearing who are hard of hearing and can't understand sign language.

CHO: But why so expressive?

CALLIS: His tone was very fierce and very strong and I had to portray that through my message and my facial expressions, because it was important for people to know that it was -- if they were in Zone A, it was immediate danger and they needed to evacuate their homes as soon as possible.

CHO: She also follows the news, so she knows how to sign words like "surge" and "crane."

Then there are times that the message for the deaf and the hearing are one and the same.

CALLIS: One of the pictures that was taken of me and the mayor, we are looking at one of the reporters. We both have our hands in the air looking at the reporter like, are you kidding me?

CHO: Callis says it's all about interpreting the mayor's message as faithfully as possible. Her fans say.

STEWART: (SIGNS AND MOUTHS "I LOVE YOU")

CHO: Alina Cho, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: She's really great.

BOLDUAN: That was -- she's absolutely the star. Unfortunately, a very sad story that obviously she was helping out with, but she became quite a star.

BLITZER: That's it for us. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.