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Israel-Gaza Conflict Escalates; Interview with George Mitchell; President Visits Myanmar; Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Continue

Aired November 19, 2012 - 07:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Our "Starting Point" this morning, mayhem in the Middle East. Six days of fighting, dozens dead, and no signs that either side is willing to back down.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Also, two media centers -- whoa!

BERMAN: Anderson Cooper witnessing it firsthand. He will join us live from Gaza.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Also this morning, an historic trip. President Obama, the first sitting president to visit Myanmar and Cambodia, but not everyone there is celebrating those visits. We're live this morning in Myanmar.

ROMANS: Meantime, tensions in the Mideast affecting your money here at home. Could we see oil prices rise just in time for the holiday travel season?

BERMAN: And Bieber sweeps, but wait until you see the show-ender that brought the house down at the American Music Awards.

BALDWIN: Does it involve your BFF?

BERMAN: It might involve one of my best friends.

BALDWIN: Stick around for this for sure.

Good morning. It is Monday, November 19th. STARING POINT begins right now.

Good morning, good morning. Happy Monday to you. Soledad is off. She's back tomorrow.

BERMAN: Great to see you, everyone. Our "starting point" today, bombs and bloodshed on the rise, the widening conflict between Hamas and Israel. The last 24 hours have been particularly deadly. Eleven civilians killed in Gaza City when Israeli missile leveled a two-story home. Four of the dead, children.

BALDWIN: As for Israel, not letting up with its air assault. Right now representatives from the two sides are in Egypt trying to negotiate a cease-fire. But they're not talking directly to one another. CNN's Anderson Cooper is live for us this morning from Gaza City. Anderson, good morning. Set the scene for us there. ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, good morning. As you said it has been another day of explosions here and rockets being fired toward Israel. I saw at least five rockets being fired over the last several hours toward Israel from here in Gaza City, which is where most of the rockets are being fired from, and also a number of explosions incoming rockets, or air strikes by Israeli forces throughout the day, at least more than a dozen that I've heard over the last several hours.

Don't have any reports, really, on casualties today. Again, we just had a rocket go off right there. Neil, if you can zoom in. You can see the trail right there in the sky. That would be the sixth rocket that we've heard over the last several hours.

There was a response from the Israeli Defense Forces earlier to some of the rockets, at least two of the rockets that were being fired. There was an explosion in the area where those rockets were fired from. This is pretty common this kind of thing. Obviously you see a lot. Remember a lot of these will very -- this is a very densely populated city, so these rockets are being fired either from little open fields next to houses or even sometimes from within houses themselves, which obviously, in very residential areas, creates a real problem for the civilians living in those areas. So again, just a sign of what we've been seeing over the last several hours.

BERMAN: You said you've been seeing there for a night. It's been going on for days now. Yesterday, you were in the midst of explosions. One went off during one of your live shots.


COOPER: Also two media centers -- whoa.



COOPER: That was a rather large explosion. That occurred -- just look out here. I can't actually see where the impact of that was. It is actually set off a number of car alarms.

BERMAN: Anderson with that going on all the time now in Gaza, what does that do to the psyche and the mood of the people on the ground?

COOPER: Well, obviously, it is very tense here, and very difficult for people living here on the ground. You know, there's -- yesterday was the deadliest day, as you know, for people in Gaza. Total so far over six days of the conflict, 95 people have been killed according to medical sources here in Gaza. Some 740 have been injured. I was at the hospital today, obviously very chaotic scene there.

And there's this constant presence of Israeli drones overhead. You hear them off in the distance. They sound almost like a distant lawnmower, kind of the closest sound I can describe it as. But it's obviously a far more, you know, dangerous and ominous than that sound. And it's constant. I can hear it right now though you may not be able to. So there's the constant realization of what is going on. Then you hear explosions periodically and the rockets being fired off. It's obviously a very tense atmosphere, one that many in Gaza have sadly become used to. People are trying to stay indoors as much as possible. The streets are pretty empty. Stores are shut down. People only going outside to get necessities, get food, cooking oil, whatever they need to be able to kind of hunker down inside, really trying to stay off the streets as much as possible.

BALDWIN: Anderson Cooper and crew on the ground for us in Gaza City. We'll check back in with you next hour. I'm curious to see what the scene was like inside the hospital. We'll take you live to Israel this morning as well.

But we have to get to the other big story we're following for you this morning -- President Obama on the ground in Cambodia, the final stop on this three-nation tour of Southeast Asia. The centerpiece of this trip here is this visit to Myanmar. The country formerly known as Burma.

BERMAN: And he is the first sitting president, President Obama is, to visit there. In a speech earlier this morning at the University of Yangon the president offered a hand of friendship from the U.S. as long as the country continues on its path to democracy. CNN's Jessica Yellin is traveling with the president. She joins us live from Yangon in Myanmar. This was a historic visit. What has been the response there?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. The response has been very warm. Obviously the people we're seeing are people who want to come out and embrace the president's message. But he spoke here in this auditorium, at an historic site, to 1,500 students and professionals, people who are pro-democracy advocates and regular citizens who just wanted to hear his message. He got a very warm reception here and the White House said that he was moved, as well, by the thousands of people who came out to greet him on the road outside the airport when he arrived.

The president gave an address in which he acknowledged that democracies are sometimes difficult and it's a struggle to get to full freedom. But he said that it is, of course, worth the effort.

And he also made clear that it isn't just a visit of goodwill, it also has strategic significance with a message to another nation in the area. Listen to this.

I don't know if we have that sound. We don't have the sound. But he talked about -- he said "I have a message to North Korea, as well. If North Korea wants to make the same choice that Myanmar made, and get rid of their nuclear program and embrace freedom, then they will see the hand of friendship from the United States, as well."

This is a message to North Korea, but there's also another point in the presence here in this region to an intentional effort to rebalance, as they say, that's what the White House called it, and help strengthen the U.S. ties in the region to try to essentially offset some of China's growing influence here and around the world. The president, as you mentioned, now in Cambodia and he has a full slate of events tonight and tomorrow.

BALDWIN: Hey, Jessica, it's Brooke. I'm just curious if you can bear with me I know your voice is going I'm sure the trip is long and arduous. I'm curious, there are many human rights activists who are curious as to why the president is there. You know, there are scores of political prisoners still very much so who would like to be freed and here we have the president of the United States visiting such a nation. Why Myanmar?

YELLIN: It's a great question and we pressed him on that. Look, the president says that this is an important show of friendship and encouragement. Because this is a very that, as you point out, there have been political prisoners, and still are. There's also some ethnic violence here where some populations are being cleansed, so they're not to full freedoms yet.

The president's message is, this is a country in the last few years made leaps and bounds away from a military dictatorship towards a more open society, releasing many political prisoners, releasing most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, that pro-democracy icon with whom the president visited today. He went to her home where she was under house arrest for almost 15 years, and we got a chance to visit that home with him and see them together.

He said that it was -- it's an important symbolic message to show that the United States will encourage a nation along the path if they make these steps toward freedom. They don't have to get there all the way on their own. And the U.S. is giving some aid to this country. And I point out there's also economic benefits here, as well, for the U.S. -- rich in minerals, rich in oil. You know, this is a nation that the U.S. could do significant trade with, as well. It's not as if there's no strategic benefit. And also it used to be a military partner with North Korea and they have broken off that alliance since the U.S. has gotten involved. So a clear message in any direction.

BALDWIN: Jessica Yellin, thank you very much.

BERMAN: Other stories we're following, Vice President Joe Biden getting a firsthand look at super-storm Sandy, the damage in New Jersey. With first responders who lost their homes. He also looked at the battered coastline by helicopter yesterday. The vice president, like president Obama, vowed to help the area to make a complete recovery.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Made it clear that we're going to do everything we can to make sure that the corps is fully funded, that we have FEMA has what it needs, and all the programs that exist under the auspices of the federal government are not only continue to exist, but are funded so that we can make sure that -- that this area of the country is fully, fully, fully restored.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: About 600 customers still do not have electricity in New Jersey over the weekend. Three weeks after the storm hit.

BALDWIN: A TV crew's camera just so happened to be rolling as this oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded off in the distance.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Holy -- look at that.


BALDWIN: Divers scouring the sea floor found the body of one man who worked on that particular platform. Another worker still unaccounted for. At least 11 others were injured in Friday's explosion. Still, we don't know what caused it.

BERMAN: Now the latest in the former CIA director David Petraeus' sex scandal. Cameras were waiting as the mistress, Paula Broadwell, returned to her North Carolina home yesterday. Her husband Scott told reporters he had no comment.

Meanwhile, after the testimony from David Petraeus before congress, a big battle is brewing over U.N. ambassador Susan Rice's declassified talking points on the attack in Benghazi, specifically why the role of terrorism wasn't reflected in these talking points. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, says she will investigate why the terrorist role was not included, but she says she's sure the White House did not change the language in those talking points.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) CALIFORNIA: With the allegation that the White House changed those talking points, that is false. There's only one thing that was changed, and I checked into this. I believe it to be absolute fact, and that was the word "consulate" was changed to "mission." That's the only change that anyone in the White House made, and I have checked this out.


BERMAN: Some influential Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of a cover-up and want Ambassador Rice to testify before congress.

BALDWIN: Tea Party favorite Allen West may not be returning to the House of Representatives. Latest recount in Florida shows west trailing his democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by almost 2,000 votes. Unofficial numbers posted just yesterday evening give Murphy 166,257 votes to 164,353 for west.

BERMAN: But who's counting? During the recount, actually, Murphy's lead grew. So things are looking worse by the day for Allen West there. Justin Bieber sweeps, he took the honors last night at the American music awards winning the "Artist of the Year" award with long with two other trophies. Bieber also had a message for his detractors.


JUSTIN BIEBER, SINGER: First of all I want to say, I want to say, this is for all the haters who thought that, you know, that maybe I was just here for one or two years. I feel like I'm going to be here for a very long time.


BERMAN: Take that haters. Meanwhile, was that Vanilla Ice right there?

BALDWIN: A little bit.

BERMAN: Good for you, Bieber. Nicki Minaj won for favorite rap hip- hop album and artist. Taylor Swift took her fifth consecutive award for favorite country artist. The night ended with a super special smash up, the South Korean rapper behind "Gangnam Style" and MC Hammer teaming up on this performance.




BALDWIN: Doesn't that bring you back to maybe like some school dances, a little --

BERMAN: Fashion never goes out of style.

BALDWIN: MC Hammer. His best he apparently --

BERMAN: That was at the Democratic National Convention. Hammer was there.

BALDWIN: That's what you call him. I asked this morning. Are you addressed as "MC"? He said no, no, Hammer.

BERMAN: Hammer is a social media icon. I met with him a few times. And he's a really interesting, smart guy.

BALDWIN: Isn't he a minister now?

BERMAN: I don't know. He's an entrepreneur.

BALDWIN: An entrepreneur, I see. I didn't hear about him for a very long time and now he's sort of back.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And he can totally still dance, by the way.

BALDWIN: All right, Christine, good morning.

ROMANS: Front page of "The Wall Street Journal" investment falls off a cliff. How many days now -- 43 days until the fiscal cliff. Minding your Business, congressional leaders came out of their fiscal cliff meeting with the president Friday and sounded encouraged that a deal could be reached. That optimism might be helping push the markets up today. U.S. stock futures, the Dow, the NASDAQ, the S&P 500 all up this morning. Shortened holiday week for stocks. But fiscal cliff fears have been weighing on the market since Election Day. The three major indices are all down about five percent and change since November 6th. That doesn't feel good.

Also, added pressure on energy prices because of unrest in the Middle East today. Oil prices are higher because of concerns that the fighting between Israel and Gaza could expand. That would potentially disrupt oil supplies in the region. Light sweet crude oil prices up nearly one percent to 88 a barrel. And Wal-Mart on the offensive against a workers walkout planned for black Friday. Wal-Mart filed a complaint with the national labor relations board. It says the union- backed, quote "Our Wal-Mart group didn't file the right paperwork to picket during past demonstrations." Our Wal-Mart says it has 1,000 protests planned across the country later this week. Wal-Mart plans to open doors for black Friday at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. So now, we're calling it black Friday mission creep. It's black Thursday now. So there you go.

BERMAN: Go shopping now. Why wait?

ROMANS: I'm going to tell you a little secret. According to Deal News, 70 percent of the in-store deals for black Friday are already available online.

BALDWIN: So throw on my sweat pants and be comatose after my turkey.

ROMANS: If you've really got to get the door buster --

BALDWIN: Hop online now. Christine, thank you.

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, of course we're continuing our coverage of the increasing violence between Israel and Gaza as the possibility of war becomes all too real. Question is, what will the role of the U.S. be if and when that happens? We're going to talk to a former Senate Majority Leader Senator George Mitchell. That is next.

BERMAN: And Chris Christie dons his famous blue fleece for a cameo on "Saturday Night live." hear who he says was stupid during super-storm Sandy.


BERMAN: As we speak there are about 30,000 Israeli troops massing along the Gaza border, the possibility of all-out war becoming frighteningly real. After six days of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks back at Israel, much of the world is hoping these two can talk their way out of this conflict to end the bloodshed. BALDWIN: Now Hamas is demanding the end to Israel's blockade on Gaza and wants raids on the territory to end permanently. As for Israel, Israel says it's not letting up until the rocket attacks from Hamas stop.

So let's begin here with former Senate majority leader George Mitchell who also more recently served as a special envoy to the Middle East. Senator Mitchell, good morning, thank you so much for being with us.


BALDWIN: Let's begin with the first obvious question which is the possibility of a cease-fire. What do you think?

MITCHELL: Well, the Egyptians are now working hard as they have in the past to establish a ceasefire and a truce. Over the past several years most of the time, the two sides have had an uneasy truce that's been broken several times. I think for both sides there is an interest in continuing and interest at some point in stopping.

BALDWIN: Continuing the fighting?

MITCHELL: Continuing the fighting.


MITCHELL: Well, the Israelis want to end the rocket fire first and they want to make the punishment so severe that Hamas will be deterred from doing this again in the future. On the other hand, they don't want to risk their peace treaty with Egypt and with Jordan. So how far you go to accomplish the first without incurring the latter is a very difficult question.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, face a real problem their own. They don't want this fighting to continue and threaten their own domestic situation. They need help from the west. They want continued good relations with the United States. But it's the Muslim Brotherhood government and Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. So, they, too, face the opposite problem. They want it to stop, but they don't want to lose their credentials with either side. It's a very difficult situation for everyone concerned.

BERMAN: With that tension, what's the risk of escalation here? As you said Israel may have an interest in continuing to try to eradicate missiles altogether. But what if they go in with ground troops? Does that hurt their standing in the public arena?

MITCHELL: It did the last time. What happens is there is, of course Israel has a right to defend itself. I think that's pretty universally accepted. And they ought to have that right. On the other hand, when they go in on the ground the casualties mount, and there comes a tipping point in international public opinion as to sort of when you have gone too far and you have these tragic incidents, because this is a very densely populated area. And one of the problems is the Israelis face is that the Palestinians place these batteries in densely populated areas, and near facilities where a lot of people are. So a lot of civilians get killed in the process.

BERMAN: The president had seemed to suggest he would rather the Israelis did not go in with ground troops. The question is, what does the U.S. do then if Israel does march across that line?

MITCHELL: Well, we will try very hard to end it as soon as possible because as I said there comes a tipping point where public opinion moves in the other direction. And you have a new situation now that didn't exist the last time there was an incursion in late '08 and '09 and that is change in the Egyptian government. Israel had a very close relationship with the Egyptian government under Mubarak and just before that had very good relations with the Turkish government. Now both of those have switched, and are not friendly to Israel and they've got to be careful they don't further isolate themselves in the region.

BALDWIN: But how? This is a whole other sort of variable on this whole occasion because you have this newly elected Egyptian president, Morsi the ideological cousin of Hamas. He has vehemently defended Hamas in the past. Yet at the same time you have Egypt struggling economically speaking, they need to make sure that he wants to be the power broker in this part of the world. How does he strike that balance? What would those talks look like?

MITCHELL: Well, the answer, of course, is in itself very difficult to achieve. That's ending the fighting and getting the two sides to the negotiating table to bring about a long-term agreement for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and it would permit a reorienting of concerns toward the real threat in the region and that's Iran. Right now as long as they're fighting and divided the Arab publics are concerned mostly about Israel when the real threat to them comes in the region, in the Gulf region, in Iran's efforts to achieve domination of the oil resources in the Persian Gulf.

BERMAN: Senator we've got to go. Let me ask you quickly, as someone who's been there before in exactly nearly exactly this type of situation do you think it will get worse before it gets better?

MITCHELL: Probably so for a short time. But I really hi that the experience of '08 hangs heavy in everyone's mind, and once the rockets stop, I think Israelis will stop.

BERMAN: All right, Senator George Mitchell thank you so much.

BALDWIN: Appreciate it.

BERMAN: STARTING POINT will continue in just a moment.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flashing his lighter side during an appearance on "Saturday Night Live."


SETH MYERS, COMEDIAN: While you're here, is there anything you'd like to say to the people of New Jersey?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) NEW JERSEY: Sure. I'd like to thank some people. I'd like to thank the Red Cross and first responders. I'd also like to give a special thanks to my lovely wife Mary Christie, who put up with a husband who smelled like a wet fleece for the past three weeks.


MYERS: You have been wearing that fleece a lot.

CHRISTIE: Yes, it's basically fused to my skin at this point.

MYERS: I have seen you wearing suits.

CHRISTIE: Oh, yes but I wear them over the fleece. I'm going to die in this fleece.


BERMAN: Love that fleece. Christie also was joking a little bit about the mayors who ignored his evacuation orders during the storm. He called them idiots and said they reminded him of Seth Myers.

BALDWIN: We love it. Did you see the Wolf Blitzer skit?

BERMAN: Happening now!

BALDWIN: They do a great Wolf, a great Wolf.

OK. Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we took you at the top of the show live to Gaza. Coming up next, live to Jerusalem as Israel broadens its assault. Will intense negotiations happening right now, will it all stop the bloodshed?

BERMAN: And mayors from across the country gathering to pressure lawmakers for a deal on the fiscal cliff. They say their cities will struggle with no compromise. We're going to talk live to Mayor Michael Nutter and Mayor Scott Smith.

BALDWIN: Also the president is not impressed. The picture with an Olympic star gymnast that's gone viral. What's that about? Back in a moment.

BERMAN: I love that picture, love it.