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Israel and Gaza Fire Rockets; Israeli Airstrikes Pound Gaza; Trapped Civilians in Gaza City; Israeli Targets in Gaza; Obama Meeting With Thai Leaders; New York Still Recovering

Aired November 18, 2012 - 06:00   ET


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: From CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, this is EARLY START WEEKEND.

The chilling sound of sirens as the fighting between Israel and Gaza intensifies, with neither side showing any signs of letting up.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody is pretty much fed up.


BLACKWELL: Almost three weeks later, thousands are still without power and basic necessities after Superstorm Sandy.

And the president just landed in Thailand, preparing to do what no sitting president has ever done before, visiting a neighboring country.

It's Sunday, November 18th. Good morning, everyone. I'm Victor Blackwell, in this morning for Randi Kaye.

We start this hour in the Middle East. There's a bit of hope this morning for a negotiated cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. Leaders from Egypt and France are trying to mediate.

And for the past five days, Israel and Hamas have fired rockets and bombed one another. Israeli air strikes have taken a heavy toll on civilians in Gaza. So have the Hamas rockets hitting southern Israel. And right now, Israel is keeping open the possibility of a ground offensive. They've got 30,000 troops on the border with another 75,000 reservists being called up.

Now, I want to show you something that played out live on Israeli television just a short time ago. Look at this. What you're watching is the so-called iron dome in action. This is Israel's missile defense system. They're tracking down and shooting down two Hamas rockets that were headed for Tel Aviv. At the end, the small puffs there, that's the signal of success that those interceptors headed off those rockets.

And so far Israel says a thousand rockets have been fired across the board. Hamas puts that number at about 900. But the constant threat has people on edge in Israel. It also makes it hazardous to bring you the story. Here's what it looked like live on CNN International just a couple of hours ago.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's another attack. There's another rocket alert going on right now. We've got to get out of here.


All right, there you see it, a strike in Ashkelon. Just a short time ago that we're seeing pictures of there. We've got the pictures up as Fred and our camera crew get out of the way. The sirens are sounding again in Ashkelon, which is the sign that another strike is coming. Can we listen here?

PLEITGEN: And now we have the impact. Oh, Colleen, we can stay on. We can stay on.

MCEDWARDS: OK. We're with you.

PLEITGEN: We can stay on. We can stay on, Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: We're with you. We're with you.

PLEITGEN: You still there?

MCEDWARDS: Yes, we're with you. Go ahead.

PLEITGEN: OK. Colleen, basically what just happened is the air sirens went off and we then ran to a -- sort of a shelter that we have right here. This is a residential building that we're in right here. We're sort of in that house. We've heard one impact just now, which appears to be rocket. The alarms seem to have died down. We're going to sort of get up and wait. Seems that though -- oh, down. Stay down. Stay down. OK, we're going to stay down actually.


BLACKWELL: That was our Fred Pleitgen. He joins us now from southern Israel.

Fred, this is life now for people there. Those sirens go off -- at least it has been -- for the past five days. Tell us how things have changed there. There's a new normal.

PLEITGEN: Oh, you're absolutely right. I mean the new normal is that basically people have to live with the threat of rocket attacks the entire day. And what they do is they stay inside for most of the day. And it's interesting to see because every time people go outside here, they actually have to plan their route very carefully so that they are in the vicinity of a hardened shelter at all times in case there is another rocket attack.

And I can tell you, this morning there have been a lot of them. In fact, I don't know how well we can see this, but I'm standing in front of one of those iron dome rocket interceptor batteries right now. And literally about four minutes before our show, it just went off and fired about three interceptor missiles that hit several Hamas rockets only about -- I'd say about 200 yards above our head. So that's been going on the entire time.

We ourselves have been in a hardened shelter at least four time today. So certainly it's taking a heavy toll on life here. People can't get on with their business. People are obviously living in constant fear. And a lot of them tell us they hope that this situation ends as fast as possible, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Let's talk about this activity along the border of Israel and Gaza. What are you seeing with this activity as these 30,000 troops move and wait for the order and the 75,000 reservists coming up? What are you seeing there with the ground troops?

PLEITGEN: Well, it's -- yes, it's constant action there at the border and its constant military buildup that you see there. I was on there late last night, also early this morning. And what you can see is you can see a lot of trucks bringing in tanks, bringing in armored vehicles, bringing in armored bulldozers as well. You see a lot of troops, a lot of soldiers being brought in. It's just constant activity there. And what's happening is that a lot of these troops are being concentrated in collection areas, which seems to indicate that they are putting those in place for a possible ground defensive. What people there are telling us and what the Israel defense forces are telling us is that right now they are in a mode of buildup. They're doing that very, very quickly. And they will be ready to launch a ground offensive if, in fact, they are ordered to do so, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, Fred Pleitgen live in southern Israel for us. Thank you. Be sure to stay safe.

The skies over Gaza are filled with rockets going out, Israeli war planes coming in. and those planes are targeting rocket-launching sites and key buildings in Gaza. Those include media centers, police stations, government buildings. Senior CNN international correspondent Sara Sidner filed this report overnight from Gaza City.


SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Today, just like the last few days, we've been hearing a chorus of drones overhead and a symphony of airstrikes. We've also seen plenty of rocket fire coming out of Gaza towards Israel. We witnessed several times, several rockets at a time, heading over towards Israel.

Now, right now we're hearing the sounds of planes and that usually only means one thing, that there will be airstrikes that follow. And it's this time of night and into the wee hours of the morning that usually things get very, very intense with lots of blasts of airstrikes.

But also we know that there have been some blasts coming from the Israeli ships in the sea. We ourselves experienced some of the loud booms and bangs that were coming from the sea. We were right on the water there. So a lot of concern.

The civilians are not in the streets. Most people have hunkered down in their homes. Most of the businesses have been closed. We know that more people have been killed here, including militants and civilians, and many people have been injured today.

Sara Sidner, CNN, Gaza City.


BLACKWELL: Dramatic rescues are taking place in Gaza City. Look at this video of a Palestinian woman and an elderly man trapped under debris after an Israeli airstrike.

Our Middle East news desk is monitoring the situation in Gaza and Israel. Nick Valencia joins me now.

And we're learning more. This situation, Nick, is changed by the minute even. What are we learning?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's taken a lot of grim turns, Victor. Good morning.

We're at the international desk here. This is our main news gathering hub here in Atlanta. We monitor all the feeds and the latest video, the latest editorial info, coming through here, monitoring the latest on the conflict in Gaza and Israel.

And, Victor, five days of war in between Palestinian militants and Israel has taken its toll. Hundreds injured, dozens dead. And we're starting to see these personal stories, Victor, emerge from the conflict. Earlier today you said the Palestinian paramedics struggled to remove an elderly woman from the debris from an airstrike from the IDF. Earlier we heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said at least 1,000 he called them terror targets in Gaza had been targeted.

But the casualties aren't just showing up on the Gaza Strip either. This is also effecting parts of Israel. Earlier today we heard from our international desk, rockets landed in Ashkelon, southern Israel. A city close -- very close to Gaza. And over the last handful of days, at least three people have been killed in Israel.

Again, that's the latest here from the international desk, Victor. We're keeping an eye on everything as it comes in and video is just pouring into the desk here. You see behind us our editors working and they're in constant communication with the field. Once we have more information, we'll bring it back to you. But that's it for now, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Well, I want to put back up this live picture that we've been seeing. This is from Reuters. This is Gaza City. And, of course, as we see things that are happening live, we're going to, of course, bring those to you. Nick Valencia monitoring this from our Middle East news desk. Thanks for that. The Middle East is near the boiling point, but could this whole thing be a political game? I'll ask one of the world's leading experts on the conflict.

And, President Obama woke up in Thailand this morning. What's on the agenda for his historic trip to Asia?


BLACKWELL: This is amateur video that was uploaded to YouTube. A blast in Gaza City. And CNN is covering this story the way no one else can, with reporters in Gaza, in Israel, Washington, Egypt. Covering this from all angles. Thirty thousand Israeli troops on the border of Gaza with another 75,000 reservists waiting to be called up.

You know, this week's escalation between Israel and Hamas is just the latest round in the decades-long conflict. Israel's air strikes have taken a toll, especially on civilians. And, meanwhile, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets. Some of those rockets even reached Jerusalem. That changes the dynamic.

Joining me live from Paris is Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Sir, thank you for joining us.

Israel has threatened a ground offensive and they have thousands of troops near the border, as we've said. Give us an idea of what that offensive looks like and how it would compare to what we saw at the end of 2008, the beginning of 2009, the last time there was this kind of offensive.

FAWAZ GERGES, PROFESSOR OF MIDDLE EAST POLITICS: Well, Victor, if Israel decides to invade this time, I think this would be a major strategic miscalculation. Let me be blunt what I mean by that. Remember 2009, 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Many of whom were women and children. Schools of Israeli soldiers were killed. Hamas was not weakened. Hamas emerged stronger as a result of the Israeli incursion in 2008-2009.

This time I fear that an Israeli invasion of Gaza, ground invasion, would basically exacerbation Egyptian-Israeli relations. In fact, I would argue, Victor, that the future of the Palestinian -- of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is on line, not to mention now that Turkey, Qatar, they're all -- are very critical of Israel. Israel has never been as isolated as it is now.

When I listen to chatter of my fellow citizens in the United States and Israel, the commentary (ph) industry, I don't think there's an appreciation of the new strategic landscape in the region. There's a new, strategic environment. Mubarak is no longer there. Turkey now is highly critical of Israel. Israel really is a fortress. And that's why I fear a military invasion of Gaza could really have major implications, not only deepening grievances between Israelis and Arabs, but also long term strategic implications for Israel in the region as a whole.

BLACKWELL: And the big unknown, and you bring it up that Mubarak is no longer there. We now have Mohamed Mori, president of Egypt, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he's really the variable here that we did not have in 2008 because no one knows really where his alliances lie. So, chapter two, you said that this would be a miscalculation by Israel go in. What does that look like as we move forward, second week, third week, if they indeed go in?

GERGES: Well, I mean I have no -- you know, you never know. As you know, Victor, when you start a war, you never know how this particular war will unfold, will evolve, will (INAUDIBLE) any major -- and particular civilian casualties. I mean Gaza, for your American viewers, is one of the most congested areas in the world. You have 2 million people. And any ground invasion will basically cause (INAUDIBLE).

I fear, too, I mean you said Egypt. Egypt now is an entirely different country. Egypt is governed by Mohamed Morsi, the president, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And also for your American -- for my -- our American viewers, Hamas is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There's an organic link between Hamas in Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Mohamed Morsi is the president today. And Morsi is between a rock and a hard place. That is he's under tremendous pressure by the rank and file in Egypt and also his relationship with the United States. And that's why I fear -- I believe that Egypt has a very constructive role to play in de- escalation.

BLACKWELL: And we'll see how they play that role, professor.

GERGES: In trying to --

BLACKWELL: We'll see how they play that role. I hate to interrupt, but we have a lot going on this morning. Thank you very much. Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics, the London School of Economics and Political Science. We'll, of course, we'll have you back.

Let's go now to Asia, where President Obama is on an historic tour this morning. His first stop is Thailand. We'll tell you why this trip sets him apart from other U.S. presidents.


BLACKWELL: These are the airstrike sirens in Israel this morning. We're learning that the French foreign minister will be traveling to Israel today to try to work out a cease-fire between the Israelis and the Palestinians with Hamas as there has been this firing back and forth across the border for the last five days. And, of course, we're covering from every angle.

Some other stories we're following. In Turkey, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan workers party has called for an end to a mass hunger strike. Others have taken to the streets to demand that the Kurdish language be taught in school and allowed in courtrooms. Kurdish Palestinians, as well as inmates, are taking part in this hunger strike. Some have gone without food for a solid 66 days.

Syria's new opposition coalition is getting more support as the country's brutal civil war wages on. It's getting a big boost with the appointment of an ambassador to France. The coalition's newly elected leader meet with French President Francois Hollande yesterday to talk about ways the coalition could gain legitimacy and credibility in its attempt to oust the Assad regime. The opposition says 258 people have been killed in Syria in just the past few days.

President Obama arrived in Thailand overnight. He's already met with the king. And right now he's getting ready to meet with the prime minister. White House correspondent Dan Lothian is in Bangkok for us.

Dan, what is the president expecting to accomplish on his trip to Asia?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, he wants to highlight Thailand, which is one of the U.S.' oldest allies. Key in the region for dealing with a host of issues, not just this country, but other countries in the region. The U.S. obviously dealing with North Korea, with Syria, with Iran. And so this is part of the overall effort by the Obama administration to continue pushing this refocus, or this pivot is the word they like to use, to Asia.

We saw last year, at the end of last year, when the president did an Asia trip and Australia announced that U.S. troops, Marines, would be going to that region. That was part of the defense component of this. They also see great benefits for business, both domestically in the U.S., but also in this region. The president has talked about how trade in this region could lead to jobs at home.

So these are some of the issues that the president will be addressing. But perhaps, first and foremost, we'll be talking about the push for democracy across the region and how Thailand can play a role in that.


BLACKWELL: So, Myanmar is next. Is that a bit controversial?

LOTHIAN: Well, it is. I mean this is a big moment because it's the first time that a U.S. president has gone to Myanmar, also known as Burma. It is a country that has been closed until recently. About two years ago we've seen sort of this movement to reform.

But the controversy is that some people believe it's too soon for the president to make a visit there because you only have sort of one first visit to make and it becomes a very big deal. And they point to the fact that, you know, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already went there at the end of last year. There's now a U.S. ambassador there. And that there's such a long way to go in this road to democracy there, that we're only in the first chapters, early chapters of it, that it's really too early.

The country's still unstable. There's still a lot of corruption there. There still a lot of violence there. And yet the president is going there. And the defense from the administration is that they have rewarded action with action. And they point to the fact that when it was announced that Secretary Clinton would be going there and that they would be putting a U.S. ambassador there, that that's when you saw parliamentary elections. That's when you saw an easing in some of the ethnic tensions there. That's when you also saw them start paying more attention to some of the humanitarian concerns. And so they believe that it's important for the president there to really highlight the steps that they're taking, but also talk about how this is a long distance race and they're far from the end.

BLACKWELL: Dan Lothian in Bangkok, thank you.

And when the president meets with the prime minister of Thailand in less than an hour, of course we will take you there live.

It's been almost three weeks since Superstorm Sandy hit, but a lot of people are still, still waiting for their lights to come back on. Why is it taking so long?


BLACKWELL: Thank you for starting your morning with us and a special welcome to our troops watching on the American Forces Network. I'm Victor Blackwell. It's half past the hour now.

Parts of the Northeast are still in need of help after Superstorm Sandy destroyed homes, shattered lives three weeks ago. Vice President Joe Biden will head to New Jersey this morning to tour recovery efforts and thank first responders in some of the hardest hit areas of Hoboken and Seaside Heights.


GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, NEW YORK: We have seen the silver lining in this situation. And we have seen people come together in way I've never seen them come together before.


BLACKWELL: And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continued to help his state to rebuild this week, unloading supplies with National Guard in hard hit Staten Island. And that's where more than half of New York City's 43 storm deaths occurred.

Well, power has come back gradually to homes and businesses in New York and New Jersey, but a lot of people are still in the dark. Look at this. According to CNN's latest numbers, there are still 4,107 outages reported in those two states now three weeks in.

And for some, Sandy took everything they had. I spent the week in New York with people who are struggling through this aftermath and searching for a way to now rebuild their lives.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We get (ph) more food on the line. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much, sweetheart.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're very welcome.

BLACKWELL (voice-over): For many in the waterfront neighborhood of Far Rockaway, New York, the week since Superstorm Sandy hit have been miserable, cold and dark.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, everybody is pretty much fed up.

BLACKWELL: Stacy Lawrence (ph) and hundreds of her neighbors in Ocean Village, a low-income housing community, struggled without heat, without power, without landline phone service.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The staircase is dark. It's just scary. Every day I'm coming down the step I might see a dead body somewhere. It's horrendous.

BLACKWELL: So we're inside the Ocean Village Apartment Community, building three. And we just walked through two double doors. And the first thing that hits you is the smell, even before you look through the doors. We've been told that there's garbage in and around the hallways because some people can't get to the incinerator, don't want to go to the incinerator.

Across the street, Sandy's surge flooded Darrnington's (ph) apartment, her furniture, electronics, some clothing, all ruined. She slept in that cold wet flood for 15 days without power.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Me and my daughter have to sleep with our coats on and five pairs of socks and ten covers on top of us.

BLACKWELL: She suffered through the same bitter temperatures, the same darkness as her neighbors, but she was optimistic at least for the sake of her 17-year-old daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to have help soon and everything's going to be all right.

BLACKWELL (on camera): Was there a moment that you didn't believe that and you were just telling her that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wouldn't tell her that. Yes, I did. I did. I didn't know how I was going to make it. I'm a single parent. I don't know how I was going to make that.

BLACKWELL (voice over): Now she and her daughter are looking for a home far from the shore. A few miles away, crews are starting to clear the roads of the sand and debris shoved into the neighborhoods of Belle Harbor. Streets like Beach 130th. Ron Walz's family was miles away when Sandy storm surge destroyed his basement and then a fire took care of the rest of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is my life savings. I don't have a mortgage. This is my retirement, my kids' college. I mean it's just overwhelming. I mean. I still can't believe it that a week ago this was -- two weeks ago this was, you know, a house.

BLACKWELL: More than a dozen homes on his block burned. Several people in Belle Harbor died. In all, Superstorm Sandy killed 43 New Yorkers. More than half of them lived on Staten Island where President Obama visited Thursday.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I promised to everybody that I was speaking on behalf of the country when I said we're going to be here until the rebuilding is complete, and I meant it.

BLACKWELL: The president made that promise in Staten Island's New Dorp Beach community in front of what's left of Dominic Treanor's (ph) small store and his childhood home. He moved into that modest house with his family at 13.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This house here, we moved here in 1959. And about four or five years later I got married and we bought the house up the street, and then my mother passed away in '92 and I wound up with her property. And I rented the store, I rented a house, I was on Social Security. You know, a little bit there, and little bit -- getting for my retirement. And that was enough. But now -- now we've got a problem. Now we've got to go back to work.

BLACKWELL: After 53 years on Cedar Grove Avenue, Treanor says now it's time to find another place to call home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now we're living in the basement. We have nothing. We have nothing.

BLACKWELL: But like thousands of others struggling in the aftermath of Sandy, the more important question is not so easy to answer.

(on camera): How do you start over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At 66 years old? I don't know. I really don't.


BLACKWELL: Well, there's at least a bit of good news this morning. Generators have been connected to nine of the 11 buildings in Ocean Village, so most of the people who live there now have heat and power.

Divers have found the body of one of the missing crew members from an oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. They found him last night under the rig on the sea floor. Another crew member is still missing. The rig was about 20 miles from the Louisiana coast when it exploded Friday, injuring 11 others. About 28 gallons of fuel spilled into the Gulf.

Just days after four servicemen were killed during a parade in Texas, a federal investigator says the float carrying them crossed a train track although the warning signs were on. The National Transportation Safety Board says the bells and lights came on 20 seconds before impact, eight seconds later the front of the truck crossed the first rail and then the gates came down and hit the float seven seconds before impact -- the five seconds later before impact the train hit the breaks. The investigator said there was nothing wrong with the train or the tracks. A Thursday's parade was in salute of the U.S. troops.

President Obama has touched down in Bangkok, Thailand this morning. We'll tell you why his three-day trip through Asia is making history. But first this.


PUSHPA BASNET: In Nepal when parents have been arrested by the police and the children don't have a local guardian, some children go to prison with the parents. The first time when I visited the jail, I was studying my bachelor's in social work. I saw a small girl who just grabbed my shawl and she gave me a smile. It was really hard for me to forget that. My name is Pushpa Basnet and my mission is to make sure no child grows up behind prison walls. In 2005 I started a day care where the children can come out from the jail at morning and they can go back to the jail at afternoon. We have children who are from two to four. They have coloring, reading, studying, five days a week. We started in residential home in 2007. Currently we have 40 children living out here, mostly above six years old. I don't get a day off, but I never get tired. The children all call me mamu. It's a big family with lots and lots of love.

When I started this organization, I was 21 years old. People thought I was crazy, but this is what I want to do with my life. I'm giving them what a normal child should have. I want to fulfill all their dreams.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is another attack, it is another rocket alert going on right now. We get to get out of here.



BLACKWELL: That's our Fred Pleitgen in Ashkelon. That happened this morning on CNN International. He's OK, but that's how immediate this situation is in Israel and Gaza. The air siren goes off and this is the new normal, at least for the last five days of the shelling going back and forth across the border.

President Obama is going where no U.S. president has gone before. As we speak, he's in the middle of an historic three-day tour through Southeast Asia. It's the president's first trip abroad since winning reelection. And his Asia tour is meant to reinforce U.S. influence in the region. And here to tell us about this trip, and why it's so historic, where it's going, here is our well traveled Nadia Bilchik. It's good to have you. And it's interesting, because you're not like any other guest. You're here with us on the team for this show. Tell us about this first country. He's in Bangkok.

NADIA BILCHIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He's -- absolutely, in Thailand. And he's already met with the king. King Bhumibol Adulyadej ...

BLACKWELL: I'm glad you said it, because I can't.

BILCHIK: And King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 84 years old. He is the oldest reigning monarch, one of the wealthiest and certainly as you mentioned earlier to me, one of the most revered, a loved king. He is also going to meet with the prime minister who is a 44-year-old woman.


BILCHIK: Yingluck Shinawatra. She is the first female prime minister of Thailand and the youngest in 60 years. And, remember, she's the sister of the deposed Thaksin Shinawatra.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, and we're going to hear from them as they held their joined new conference coming up in our 7:00 hour.


BLACKWELL: And I think it's amazing, this story about the king. You told us that you cannot speak ill of the king.

BILCHIK: You cannot -- you cannot speak ill of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He is a renowned figure throughout Thailand. And, of course, then after Thailand.

BLACKWELL: On to Burma.

BILCHIK: You know, back he goes to Myanmar ...


BILCHIK: Otherwise known as Burma. And there he will meet the renowned human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. We know she was under house arrest for over 15 years, and is now elite of the opposition party. So that's how far Myanmar, Burma has come. He'll also meet with Thein Sein, the prime minister, who's been responsible for a lot of these reforms. Series of reforms following decades of repressive military rule. So encouraging democracy in that arena. And then ...


BILCHIK: He goes to Cambodia for the East Asia Summit and he'll meet the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, as well as the new Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. So it's going to be a very interesting time, and as you said, the idea is to try and consolidate American influence. Try and thwart some of the Chinese influence. BLACKWELL: Yes. And every time the president travels overseas it's historic, right, because the president is going, but this is especially historic because there are some firsts.

BILCHIK: Definitely first for Myanmar. We know Hillary Clinton was there last year. But also, what a time, Victor, for the president to be going. We have the Benghazi hearings, we have Petraeus, we have the Gaza crisis, we have the looming begins with an f -- fiscal cliff.

BLACKWELL: Yes. Yes. The fiscal cliff.

BILCHIK: So, what a time. And -- or he's going to be doing all of this in three to four days. Can you imagine?


BILCHIK: It reminds you of Dr. Seuss, oh, the places you'll go, and the people you'll meet.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, and it got to be one of my favorite childhood books. But you - we are seeing here that the president in many of these countries is beloved. When he comes, there are ...


BLACKWELL: Mugs and flags and clothes.

BILCHIK: Yes, we know that Obama internationally is amongst many countries renowned. But huge to have an American president. What it says about our faith in the country as Dan Lothian said earlier. We're encouraging trade between the countries. So it's a very important diplomatic trip, encouraging democracy throughout these regions trip, and in general great public relations, however, at a very difficult time for the president to be there. So, you can imagine he's on the phone a lot.

BLACKWELL: Yes, yes. Nadia Bilchik. Thank you for introducing us to some of the great characters on this trip. And I know you're probably sitting there at home right now enjoying drake's coffee cake for breakfast. A lot of people do. But those treats are now on the endangered list. The cupcakes and the Ho-Hos, and the Ding Dongs. It's all so sad.

Twinkie is going to ride off into the sunset.



JASON SUDEIKIS, IMPERSONATES WOLF BLITZER: Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer and my face is being haunted by the ghost of an old beard.


SUDEIKIS: Tonight the Petraeus scandal continues to spiral outward and one woman stands at the center of it all, Jill Kelley. Seen here leaving her home in Tampa, Florida, walking down some stairs and getting into a car.


SUDEIKIS: Jill Kelley first reported General Petraeus's mistress Paula Broadwell after Broadwell sent several threatening e-mails to Mrs. Kelley. Seen here in the same clip during the same thing because it's the only footage we have of her.



BLACKWELL: Really, it is the only footage we have of her. "Saturday Night Live", having a little fun at our expense, and they did not stop there. We'll have more for you in just a bit.

Well, after 127 days in space, three crew members at the international space station will head home today. Commander Suni Williams handed over command to NASA's Kevin Ford yesterday. Williams, along with the Japanese astronaut and the Russian Soyuz commander will leave the space station around 5:00 p.m. today. They're expected to land in Kazakhstan around 8:00 tonight.

The big news in business this week was the announcement that Hostess -- or Hostess - is shutting down. People immediately started hoarding Twinkies, but there are so many more treats we'll have to do without. Gone will be things like cupcakes, Ding Dongs, but it also means no more Dolly Madison treats, my favorite or Drakes Cakes. And can you believe, no more Wonder Bread. Also, Nature's Pride will be gone from stores. That's just the food. Also 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers, 570 bakery outlet stores and more than 18,000 jobs. That's what's really important. Alison Kosik has more on the end of an era.


ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Following a nasty labor dispute and almost a year in bankruptcy, Hostess brand is closing its 33 bakeries, more than 500 distribution centers, and selling off its assets, putting the future of the 82-year-old Twinkie in question. It's been a long road for the cream-filled pastry, now part of the American lexicon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's Twinkie the kid!


KOSIK: The Twinkie was born in 1930 in Illinois. Inventor James Dewar was looking for a way to use the Continental Baking Compan's seasonal strawberry shortcake pans year round. He came up with a yellow sponge cake filled with banana cream, but during World War II banana rationing forced the company to change to vanilla cream filling. The replacement was so popular it never changed back. Over the years the Twinkie became a part of American popular culture. In the 1950s the Howdy Doody show host Buffalo Bob gave it an endorsement.

BUFFALO BOB: What was that? (inaudible) Chrystal, and what do we have? Hostess Twinkies.

KOSIK: In the 1980 the "Ghostbusters" movie used the Twinkie to describe the level of ghostly activity in the New York area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This would be Twinkie.


KOSIK: In the 1990s there was a presidential endorsement as President Bill Clinton included a Twinkie in a millennium time capsule. And in the Youtube age, we've seen the Twinkie put to the test for shelf life, toughness and microwave ability.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, God. That looks like a turd.

KOSIK: But now the Twinkie needs someone to come to its rescue or we'll have to say good-bye to the Twinkie for good.


BLACKWELL: Well, when it comes to comedy, there are a few boundaries for "Saturday Night Live," especially when it comes to mocking the media. This week they took aim at our own Wolf Blitzer.


SUDEIKIS: Joining us now is the mayor of Tampa, also known as Derek Fat Deuce Derek.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sup, homey, where you at?


SUDEIKIS: I'm in the situation room.


SUDEIKIS: All right, yeah. OK, Mr. Mayor, what can you tell us about Jill Kelley seen here walking up and down the stairs repeatedly?





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's like a fun one. Tampa all fine. Tampa got everything. Cigars, Jill Kelley, tap shoes, loose murders. And (inaudible) Beach you can find that Jill Kelley got a dress too. She fine.

SUDEIKIS: And this is the same Jill Kelley seen here in a CNN dramatization.



BLACKWELL: Oh, it's funny. We'll be right back.


BLACKWELL: And, of course, CNN is covering this conflict in the Middle East like no one else can with reporters in Israel and Gaza, in Washington. Also with the major players in Egypt and Turkey. Let's check in now with our Middle East desk that's covering everything happening in this conflict between Israel and Gaza. Nick Valencia is down at the desk. Nick, what's developing now?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, good morning, Victor. We're at the international desk, this is the Habawari International news gathering coverage, you see the editors behind me, working there, they are in touch with the correspondents in the field, getting latest information. Also, the latest video. And we've got new information just into CNN. We're learning now that the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius is set to arrive in Israel later today. He is expected to meet with Israeli leaders, including the president, prime minister and foreign minister of Israel. We also understand he might meet with the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. He's expected to push towards a cease fire. Now, this comes on at the heels of comments made by Benjamin Netanyahu who, of course, is the prime minister of Israel. Who said that the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, is prepared to widen its scope to stop these rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. Hundreds of rockets have made their way towards Israel territory killing at least three people so far, Victor. And the casualties aren't just mounting in Israel, but also in Gaza, where at least 50 people have died in the last handful of days. This conflict we've been following it, Victor, since Wednesday, as it - when it erupted. But that's the latest for now from the international desk. We'll give it back to you at the studio.

BLACKWELL: Nick Valencia, thanks. We'll check back.

Every 19 minutes someone dies of an accidental drug overdose. And what might surprise you is those drugs are perfectly legal and the people using them come from all walks of life. In fact, prescription drugs now kill more people in America each year than car crashes. Take a listen to this short piece from "A Deadly Dose", a new documentary that premiers tonight on CNN.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What you're listening to are actual calls ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How is he acting? GUPTA: At the Washington Poison Center in Seattle.


GUPTA: And lately more and more of them sound something like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And today I took about 90 milligrams of Percocet.

GUPTA: Dr. Bill Hurley is the medical director of the poison center. He's also a trauma doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Possibly too many of these meds, they're not sure what all they've got.

GUPTA: We're here in Seattle in part because the problem is bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bottle still has quite a bit in it.

GUPTA: But also because, as you will see, there are real solutions.


BLACKWELL: If you want to see more, watch the premiere o Dr. Sanjay Gupta's documentary "Deadly Dose" tonight at 8:00 Eastern.

All right, Thanksgiving week is here, time to take a look at the week ahead. Here are some of the dates to keep on your calendar, as you prepare for turkey day. Of course, Monday, and we have been covering that the president will be at the East Asian summit. Right now he is in Thailand, he'll go on to Myanmar and then to Cambodia for the summit. Then on Tuesday he'll come back to D.C. For Wednesday, he'll have that huge turkey pardon when he will pardon two turkeys. It's an annual tradition that started back with President Reagan. And unfortunately 45 million other turkeys will not be pardoned. They'll end up as dinner. And then Thursday Thanksgiving, when we all get together with our families. Come on, new touch. There we go. Thanksgiving, can't skip that. Time for football, food, family friends, a little more food, probably a little more football. And then Friday is Black Friday. Lots of stores, the huge deals, you get your electronics, all the clothes. Remember, a few retail giants are starting sales as soon as Thursday evening this year. All right, thanks for starting your morning with us. We've got a lot more ahead on "CNN Sunday Morning." It starts right now.

From CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, this is CNN Sunday Morning.

The chilling sound of sirens, often followed by ...


BLACKWELL: And even CNN crews are taking cover in the battle between Israel and Hamas. REPORTER: There's another attack, there's another rocket alert going on right now. We've got to get out of here.

BLACKWELL: The death toll, tension and troop numbers all rising in the Middle East as we get closer to what could soon become a ground war.


BLACKWELL: Good morning, everyone. I'm Victor Blackwell, in for Randi Kaye. It's 7:00 on the East Coast and 4:00 on the West. Thanks for starting your morning with us.

We're starting this hour in the Middle East, where civilians are living in fear as Israeli forces battle Hamas militants across the Israeli-Gaza border. For the past five days, Israel and Hamas have fired rockets and bombed one another. Israeli airstrikes have taken a heavy toll on civilians in Gaza and so have the Hamas rockets hitting southern Israel.

There is, though, a hope for a sliver of hope for peace. Officials in Egypt and France are trying to broker a cease-fire.

This is what life is like for civilians on both sides. In Israel, they run for cover when those sirens sound. Each siren is usually followed by an explosion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke a short time ago at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Here's what he had to say.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAEL PRIME MINISTER (via translator): The Israel Defense Forces have attacked more than 1,000 terror targets in the Gaza Strip and it continues its operation in this very moment. It calls for significant blows to the weapons aimed towards Israel, its operators and the people who send them. We're exacting it a heavy from Hamas and the terrorist organization, and Israel Defense Forces are prepared for a significant expansion of the operation.


BLACKWELL: And in Gaza, the streets are relatively quiet. That's because people are afraid to go out for fear that another Israeli air strike could hit at any time.

CNN senior international correspondent Sara Sidner joins me live now from Gaza City.

Sara, we've talked a lot about the air strikes, but is it just the air strikes coming from the warplanes hitting this city?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No. There are strikes coming from the Israeli naval ships that are just off the coast of Gaza. And as you know, Gaza is just a strip along the Mediterranean. Last night, we heard bang after bang. It was amazingly loud, loud enough to keep us up all night.

Now, we're standing outside down the street from our office because we cannot get to our office at this point in time. We're being told to stop because there's a building just behind me, and I'm going to move out of my way so you can see it.

You see that big building that's sand-colored? That is Al-Aqsa TV. That's the official Hamas television station and it was hit last night in a targeted air strike. Now, the journalists who are inside, there were several who were hurt. We understand one of them may have been hurt bad enough, he may lose his leg.

We have been told they were called. At some point, the journalists inside that building, which included some international journalists, were told and called that there was going to be an airstrike and evacuate the building. Most did evacuate, but because the airstrike did not hit for four or five hours, some of the journalists went back inside and they got hit and hurt when the airstrike happened.

We also had been to neighborhoods today where there are entire buildings collapsed on itself, pancaked, looks almost like an earthquake. And we also saw a family that wasn't hit directly by the bomb but the bomb landed right near them and it was so powerful, it lifted up a huge chunk of the earth and dropped it on top of their home, killing two children and injured the father -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: We're also hearing -- I want to make sure people at home know that what you're seeing on your screen is what Al-Aqsa is showing live right now. That's the television network that Sara just mentioned.

Sara, we know that the Israelis have been going after these rocket launching sites, of course, and had been pretty successful. You talked about this television station. What else are they hitting?

SIDNER: They're hitting all sorts of targets. Mostly they've been going after the Hamas government compound. So we know that the police headquarters, for example, was flattened. The compound where the head of the Hamas headquarters exists, that was hit really hard.

We also have seen ourselves several rockets. In fact, just to the right of us, there were four rockets that went up loud enough to make us duck. We saw rockets also in the area where we were -- where the building was flattened. It was a three-story building, an apartment building where the families lived. Again, some of those families were told the airstrike was coming and evacuated. Some didn't get the call, didn't leave, and they ended up being injured.

But this is a really scary situation as you might imagine Israel saying that they're looking to just do targeted air strikes, very specific spots. But as you know in this densely populated city, the civilians are getting caught in this crossfire. It's been a very, very tense time for the civilians in Gaza. And for them, it feels like war here -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right. Sara Sidner, live in Gaza City for us there this morning.

So far, Israel says 1,000 rockets have fired across the border. Hamas puts that number at 900. It's a constant threat for the Israeli people.

Our Frederik Pleitgen joins me live now from southern Israel.

Fred, you've had to take coverage several times. We've seen it live on our air, on CNN International. How is the Israel government trying to protect its citizens?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: One of the main ways of trying to protect is actually right behind me. It's a missile interception system, Victor, called the Iron Dome. I can tell you a couple minutes ago, the Iron Dome, not this one but a different battery, was actually in full swing.

There was a barrage of missiles, of rockets that were fired out of Gaza literally about three minutes before we just went on air, and I would say at least 12 to 15 of them were picked off by the Iron Dome interceptor system. So, clearly, it's something that works very efficiently.

However, of course, it's not efficient enough because there have been hits on Israel territory throughout the day. In Ashkelon this morning where we were, we had several rockets impact there. We were actually on the scene of where one of those rockets impact. It was in a residential area.

One woman was in her house as the rocket impacted into her carport. Luckily, she was in the shelter, but certainly it is something that is taking a heavy toll on the lives of ordinary citizens here in Israel. A lot of them, of course, stay in their houses throughout the better part of the day. Whenever they do have to leave, they plan their routes very carefully to make sure they have some sort of shelter along the way.

And I can tell you -- today has been a particularly bad day where we ourselves have had to go into hardened shelters at least four times. And also, we've had to hit the deck a couple of times here simply because there've been so many rockets fired out of Gaza towards cities like Ashkelon, but also other cities around the Gaza border, Victor.

BLACKWELL: So, we know that the Iron Dome has been quite successful, but there have been a large number of the rockets that have been successful. You say that people stay inside, schools closed, businesses shut down. I mean, this has kind of paralyzed the city of Ashkelon?

PLEITGEN: Well, you know, the thing is about cities like Ashkelon and others that are around the Gaza area is that they have sort of a routine of dealing with all this, as bad as they may sound. They get rocket attacks quite frequently even in the best of times. So, they always take these alarms very seriously. But, of course, it's something that's increasing paralyzing, also commercial life here.

I was in marina in Ashkelon just a couple of days ago. It's a beautiful place. People usually go there, especially on weekends, of course, to have their beer and to hang out. And it was absolutely empty. There was no one there.

So it's taking a big toll on businesses. Also a lot of people, especially, who have children, very worried about their families, keeping their children inside. And it is something that is, of course, especially for the little ones, a very, very traumatizing experience.

So, yes, these people are used to dealing with things like that. But, of course, right now, it's a special situation for them, a very dire situation. People that we talk to here say that they're very much in favor of the military operation going on. However, of course, all of them wanted to end this as fast as possible, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Even rocket fire in the best of times.

All right. Fred Pleitgen, thank you very much.

Are you skeptical that Congress will reach to avoid the fiscal cliff? Yes, all of this and the fiscal cliff. If so, you're not alone. About half the nation doubts it will happen. We'll explain, next.


BLACKWELL: Let's move now from the Middle East to the Far East. And that's where President Obama is right now. He is Thailand with the first stop on a three-country tour that includes Myanmar and Cambodia. He will talk about the spread of democracy in the region.

The president has already met with Thailand's king today. He's there with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra. They will hold a joint press conference, the president and the prime minister. Of course, we'll take you to that live when it happens.

A victim of the Safeway shooting in Tucson, Arizona, last January won a tight race for congress yesterday.


BLACKWELL: That's Democrat Ron Barber. He was Gabby Giffords' aide when a gunman tried to assassinate her. He was also wounded and was later elected to finish her term. He beat Republican Martha McSally about 1,400 votes was the margin. With his win, Democrats have a net gain of six seats in the House and some races still have yet to be called.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio visited Iowa to celebrate Governor Terry Branstad's 66 birthday and speak at a GOP fundraiser. Well, you know what that means. Some speculation is an early visit is an early move for a possible 2016 run for the White House. Rubio joked that he would never run for offensive coordinator for Iowa and he also addressed the fiscal cliff.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Thank you. Thank you very much.

You look at this fiscal cliff. I don't know if you guys have heard about this. You know who made that? Congress made that. The idea that we should have these enormous tax increases at the same time that we had these dramatic cuts in spending, at the exact same time that all these exact taxes expire, at the same exact moment that the spending goes down in a dramatic fashion and uncontrolled way, that didn't -- that wasn't an accident. Congress chose that.


BLACKWELL: Rubio is considered a rising star in the GOP and is a Tea Party favorite.

Now, talking about the fiscal cliff, the U.S. is a month and a half away from going over this so-called fiscal cliff and negotiations have begun, but some voters are skeptical that a deal will be reached before the end of the year.

Here's political editor Paul Steinhauser.



The clock is ticking on any deal to avoid falling off the fiscal cliff.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we're all aware that we have some urgent business to do.

STEINHAUSER: The president, as he sat down at the White House Friday with top congressional leaders from both parties. And Americans agree. More than eight in 10 questioned in a "USA Today"/Gallup poll say it's extremely important for the president and Congress to reach a deal.

OBAMA: Our challenge is to make sure that, you know, we are able to cooperate together.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: And I believe that we can do this and avert the fiscal cliff that is right in front of us today.

STEINHAUSER: And that's what most people want. Nearly seven in 10 say Democrats and Republicans should vote to equally compromise to prevent massive spending cuts and tax hikes to start to kick in at the beginning of the year.

So, what do they want in any deal? Well, 45 percent say it should be about half spending cuts and half tax increases with about four in 10 saying it should be mostly or only spending cuts.

And according to exit polls from election night, nearly half of voters said raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans was OK. Taxes may be the biggest sticking point in reaching a deal.

OBAMA: What I'm not going to do is extend Bush tax cut for the wealthiest 2 percent that we can't afford and according to economists will have the least positive impact on our economy.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: We're in the dilemma were in not because we tax too little but because we spend too much.

STEINHAUSER: And that maybe why about half of those question in a Pew poll say Congress will fail to hammer out an agreement.

And if there's no deal, who gets the blame? Well, according to that Pew poll, more than half say fingers will be pointed at congressional Republicans with about one in three saying it will be the president's fault -- Victor.


BLACKWELL: Paul, thanks.

"Rolling Stone" calls it legendary. A comedian's emotional standup said about her cancer diagnosis. It didn't just help her heal. It changed her life. A conversation, rather, with comedian Tig Notaro is coming up.


BLACKWELL: Let's go live now to Bangkok. This is Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. She's holding a joint news conference with President Obama. Let's listen.

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA, THAI PRIME MINISTER: -- and indeed broader region, ASEAN, and Asia Pacific. On the economy front, to generate growth and create jobs for both Thais and Americans, the president and I agree to redouble our effort to promote trade and investment and people to people exchange. We will also strengthen our cooperation in energy and for security.

Furthermore, we agree that Thailand is in a strategic location and have for ASEAN connectivity, and the ASEAN economic communities, AEC. We will work together to make the regions an engine of growth, contributing towards global economic sovereignties and sustenance abilities.

Within this context, I inform the president that Thailand will initiate negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP which will engage our state corridors and undertake the necessary domestic legislative process to make it become reality. The president and I had a wide-ranging discussion about regional issues and I welcome his upcoming historic visit with Myanmar and Cambodia.

We welcome the United States' renewed focus on Southeast Asia and believe our bilateral partnership can help contribute to regional peace, securities, and prosperities.

But our cooperation goes beyond the regions. At the global level, Thailand is concerned with the threat of weapon of mass destruction or WMD. Therefore, I informed the president that Thailand will join the Proliferation Security Initiative or PSI. We believe that PSI will help to prevent WMD from falling into the wrong hands, which is in the shared interests of all.

The president and I also discussed on how to tackle trans-nation crimes and in particular human trafficking. I reaffirm my commitment to fight human trafficking which is equal to modern slavery. We also discuss cooperation on combating terrorisms and how to deal with the issue, especially in the term of this disaster relief.

Finally, we recognize the importance of continual high-level exchange and consultation between our two countries. As part of our growing partnership, the president and I agree to stay in close touch and to have our minister and agency to do the same under which agenda we discussed today.

Thank you for --

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

We now invite the Honorable Barack Obama, president of the United States, to say a few words.

OBAMA: Well, thank you very much.

Good evening to the people of Thailand, who have welcomed me so graciously, let me say (SPEAKING THAI). I will say that the prime minister's English is much better than my Thai.

But I want to say thank you so much, Madam Prime Minister, for your very warm welcome, your generous words, and a sense of partnership that you bring to our work today.

As you indicated, Asia is my first foreign trip since our election in the United States, and Thailand is my first stop. And this is no accident. As I've said many times, the United States is and also will be a Pacific nation. As the fastest growing region in the world, the Asia past look change so much in our security and prosperity in the century ahead and it is critical to creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.

And that's why I've made restoring American engagement in this region a top priority as president. And the cornerstone of our strategy is our strong and enduring treaty alliances, which includes our alliance with Thailand.

Thailand is America's oldest friend in Asia. Next year will mark 180 years of diplomatic relations. We've been treaty allies committed to our common defense for nearly 60 years. Our men and women in uniform have stood together and they've bled together.

Our business people and our entrepreneurs work together to create jobs for both of our peoples. Our diplomats, development experts, researchers, and student partners every day work together so that our citizens and the people across this region can live in piece and security and dignity. Most recently, the people of Thailand have worked to restore and strengthen your own democracy, and we are very admiring of the efforts that have been made.

Earlier today, I had the great honor of having an audience before his majesty, the king -- a leader over wisdom and dignity who embodies the identity and unity of this nation. And today, I'm proud to stand beside the democratically elected leader of Thailand and to reaffirm the importance of upholding democracy, governance, rule of law, and universal human rights -- all of which I know, Madam Prime Minister, that you believe in very deeply.

When we met in Bali last year, the prime minister and I discussed how we would deepen and broaden the partnership between our countries, and with this visit, I'm pleased that we've agreed to a series of efforts that revitalize our alliance to meet the challenges and opportunities of our time.

First, we're deepening our security cooperation, our militaries already train and exercise together and were already close partners in preventing terrorism and combating narco trafficking. Now we have a new broader vision for our alliance. We're going to improve the ability of our militaries to operate together. We'll help Thai forces assume even greater responsibilities in the region, from maritime security to disaster relief to preventing piracy.

I especially want to commend Thailand for joining the Proliferation Security Initiative that prevents the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And taken together, these steps advance our shared vision of a secure and peaceful Asian Pacific where the rights and responsibilities of all nations are upheld.

Second, we're taking new steps to expand trade and investment. The United States is already one of Thailand's biggest trading partners, and we're already one of the biggest investors in Thailand. But we believe we can do even more. So, we've agreed to reconvene our trade and investment council to explore new ways that our countries and our entrepreneurs can do business together.

We'll continue to work with our APEC partners to reduce barriers and move toward a seamless regional economy and we'll work together as Thailand begins to lay the groundwork for high standing trade agreement such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All of this will advance our position of a region where a trade is free and fair and all nations play by the rules.

Third, on this 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Thailand, we're moving ahead with new partnerships to move with human development and dignity. We'll focus on public health, developing a vaccine for HIV/AIDS and ensuring that development is sustainable, especially in regions along the Mekong River.

I recently announced new steps that the United States is taking to confront the scourge of human trafficking, modern slavery. Thailand is also taking new steps to address this challenge, including measures to better protect and empower women and girls and I'm very pleased to see the leadership that the prime minister has taken on what I think we all agree is a very important issue.

And given Thailand's role as an emerging donor country, I'm very pleased that are out two nations will be working more closely to promote development in other countries, including fighting malaria along the Thai/Burma border.

We also welcome, by the way, the leadership Thailand has taken in protecting wildlife around the world. It's something that Thailand should be very proud of.

Finally, we discussed a range of regional challenges. Thailand has supported the cause of democracy in Burma, protecting dissidents, hosting refugees, and promoting reform. And I very much appreciate the prime minister's insights as I prepare to visit Burma tomorrow.

As a founding member of ASEAN, Thailand will play an important role in our meetings in Cambodia, and I especially want to thank our Thai friends of being so supportive of our role in East Asia Summit, which should be the premiere form for discussing regional challenges including maritime security.

So once again, Madam Prime Minister, I want to thank you for your hospitality and your partnership. And because of the progress we've made today, I think we've put the U.S./Thai alliance on an even firmer footing for many years to come. And tonight I look forward to celebrating the bonds of friendship between our peoples and also enjoying some Thai food, which is one of my favorites.

So, thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. President. And now we will take a few questions from the floor.

I would ask if I have not already mentioned so to ask you to identify your name and affiliation. We have about four questions. And so the first question is to the Thai media. So could I have the first question, please?

REPORTER: Good evening. I am representing (INAUDIBLE) local newspaper here in Thailand. This question goes to both of you, Mr. President and Ms. Prime Minister.

You both talk about democracy in Thailand but my question is this -- are you both satisfied with how democracies work -- the situation of democracy in Thailand? I'm talking about the situation that -- those who are responsible for 2010 (INAUDIBLE) not pursuit by laws. You have still have these laws that criminalize any criticism against the king, including an American citizen Joe Gordon, you have many political prisoners and recorded human right abuse.

I mean, in your opinion, do you call this satisfying?

And Mr. President, which Thai cuisine dish is your favorite again? Could you be specific? Thank you, sir.

MODERATOR: Prime minister may answer the question first.

SHINAWATRA: Let me answer the question on democracy today. I think the definition our (INAUDIBLE) is the stability of democracy, because democracy, we believe that this will be there be economic growth in the future. So, the definition to go with that vision is that national reconciliation.

But for Thailand situation, I think we will speak with the principle of true democracy by using the outcry of the rule of law and the due process and make sure that all things will be equal and fair basis.

And in Thailand also, we aim for -- we like to see national reconciliation. So our opposition will be with the passion and with peaceful way, using the democracy way will be the place to solve the problem. Thank you.

OBAMA: Well, let me just say first of all that, you know, democracy is not something that is static. It's something we have to constantly work on. The U.S. is the oldest democracy in the world, but we constantly have to -- as citizens, work to make sure that it is working to include everybody, to make sure that the freedoms that are in our Constitution, the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, that those are practiced and observed.

And so, the work of democracy never stops. I think that what you're seeing here in Thailand is a democratically elected prime minister who's committed to democracy, committed to rule of law, committed to freedom of speech and the press and assembly. But, obviously, what's true in Thailand as is true in America is that all citizens have to remain vigilant, and there's always improvements to be made.

And I very much congratulate the prime minister on her commitment to democracy, and I know many of the forms that she continues to be interested in are ones that will strengthen democracy even further in Thailand and will serve as a good example for the region as a whole.

In terms of Thai cuisine, I like it all, and I've looked over the menu for this evening's dinner, and it looks very good, which is good because I'm also very hungry. So, I think -- I saved my appetite, and I'm looking forward to having some authentic Thai food.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

The second question comes from the U.S. media. I'd like to call on "The Washington Post," please.

REPORTER: Thank you very much. Madam Prime Minister, thank you for hosting us, the American media as well as the rest of the president's delegation.

Mr. President you will make history tomorrow as the first U.S. president to visit Burma. But human rights activists have warned that your visit is premature given the escalating ethnic violence that had left hundreds dead and up to hundred thousand people displaced in that country. Your NSC director for human rights said the other day that people are, quote, "living in fear and terror."

Why are you moving so quickly to endorse the Burmese leadership and reward them with a personal visit? And given some of the recent setbacks of the democratic movements in the Middle East, why are you so confident that Burma will move down the path of reform?

And to Madam Prime Minister as well, as a U.S. ally and neighbor of Myanmar and Burma, are you satisfied that President Thein Sein is doing enough to stop the ethnic violence and protect human rights there? And do you believe President Obama's visit is premature or appropriately timed? Thank you.

OBAMA: Well, first of all I think it's important to recognize, David -- this is not an endorsement of the Burmese government. This is an acknowledgement there's a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half ago, two years ago nobody foresaw.

President Sein is taking steps that move us in a better direction. You have Aung San Suu Kyi now an elected member of parliament. You've seen political prisoners released. There's an articulated commitment to further political reform.

But I don't think anybody's under the illusion that Burma's arrived, that they're where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time. And one of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made but also to give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future.

So when I address the Burmese public as the first president who's ever visited that country, what they'll hear from me is that we congratulate them on having opened the door to a country that respects human rights and respects political freedom.

And it is saying that it's committed towards a more democratic government. But what you'll also hear is that the country has a long way to go. And, you know, I'm not somebody who thinks that the United States should just stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there's an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country.

And in part I'm taking my guidance from Aung San Suu Kyi who I think --

BLACKWELL: You've been listening to a live conference between President Obama and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, discussing the issues of human trafficking and climate change and trade on the president's on his three-day tour of Asia, in Thailand, Burma tomorrow and then Cambodia.

We're going to now join "SANJAY GUPTA, M.D." in progress.


BLACKWELL: A bit of a technical issue. We're going to continue to listen to the president's answer to a question about his visit to Burma, the fist of a sitting U.S. president.

Is this rewarding Burma with a presidential visit? The president said just a moment ago this is not an endorsement of the Burmese government but an acknowledgement of the process and reform. Let's continue to listen.

OBAMA: Then we're in a position to respond appropriately. But my hope is that, you know, we will continue on a positive track, and hopefully my visit will be able to encourage that.

SHINAWATRA: For myself, I think on the case of the Myanmar situation, thing now I think now we can see from my observation and also I have had several chances to visit in Myanmar, we see a lot of progress on the political reform from the government. And I think from the basic that we have been told you, that I think we believe that the fundamental of economic growth and --

BLACKWELL: All right. Let's go back once more, try this again to join "SANJAY GUPTA, M.D." in process.