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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Israel Ground Offensive On Hold; Blair Working To Broker Truce; Who Altered Benghazi Talking Points?; Indianapolis Explosion; NTSB Recreating Train Collision; Arrest Made In Deadly Zoo Break In; Ground Offensive On Hold

Aired November 20, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, there is other news coming out of the region right now, an attack at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv in Israel. Details just coming in, but here's what we know. An Israeli police spokesman says a security guard at the embassy was stabbed with an ax or a pitchfork.

The attacker reportedly also had a knife on him at the time. The witness told Reuters the attacker ran toward the guards and ignored their calls to get on the ground. They jumped him, and took him down. Motive of the attack was not clear. When we get more information we will bring that to you as well.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Other big breaking news here overnight, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she is now on a plane heading to the Middle East. First stop to Israel, and also she will be heading to the West Bank, also Egypt here, as part of the talks to end this conflict.

The Israelis, they are not letting up, they've been carrying out 80 air strikes overnight with Hamas fighters launching 95 rockets back across the border. And in the last 24 hours, 38 more Palestinians have been killed, bringing the death toll since last week to 111.

CNN confirming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton en route to Israel right at this very moment, she will be speaking specifically with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, before talks with leaders in Egypt and the west bank cities of Ramallah.

And while Israel and Hamas are considering a ceasefire proposals here this morning begin to reiterate the breaking news from this senior Israeli government official that the decision has been taken to hold on the military ground offensive here.

We can tell you that the ambassador to Israel to the United States told Erin Burnett last night his country is now ready to launch this full-scale ground attack. This was just last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: We hope that the fighting will not escalate. We hope that Hamas will stop shooting at us. But at the end of the day, we have to take all legitimate and necessary measures to protect our citizens. And if that includes ground action, it might have to include ground action, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Arwa Damon is live this morning from Gaza City. She's got some new information here as far as attacks there. Arwa, what do you know? What are you seeing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're just getting information right now, Brooke, because we heard and saw a loud explosion over in that direction. We saw a massive plume of black smoke rising.

Initial information bearing in mind that is very much information is that that was the house that belonged to a senior Hamas commander, perhaps senior Hamas official. Initial reports are perhaps that the family was warned by the Israelis to evacuate.

On some occasions they do, do that. They will warn people in the area before a strike is about to occur. We do not have any reports of casualties just yet. This most certainly is not the first time that we're seeing the Israelis striking.

People's homes when they are trying to target the Hamas senior leadership. And on some occasions we have, in fact, seen the casualties of those air strikes be innocent civilians, people who have nothing to do with Hamas, nothing to do with its political leadership.

As we saw in the strike that took place on Sunday that left at least nine members of a family dead, to include three children and a baby. But we have been hearing a series of explosions here over the last few hours.

So most certainly the Israelis are saying that they're hoping their ground operations for the time being, they have not been halting their strikes on this very densely populated city -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Not halting the strikes. But again they're hoping the solution, according to the Israeli government officials, the solution here of halting the ground offensive must result in no more Hamas rockets fired on Israel.

As you're talking to people in Gaza City, as I'm sure that the fear is palpable on the streets and people are staying indoors, what are they telling you?

DAMON: It most certainly is. You know, the streets down below us, they are completely deserted. There are perhaps a handful of cars driving around. These are streets that normally would be bustling with activity.

When you do walk around here you feel as if you're in a war zone, a war zone that perhaps residents would have fled to try to stay safer. The reality people are dealing with here, there is nowhere for them to go.

They cannot go into Israel. The Israelis will not let them in. Crossing into Egypt requires a hard-to-obtain permit. People are absolutely terrified. They're saying this time around, bearing in mind they have been through this before.

But this time around, they say the strikes are much more widespread than they have been in the past targeting very different neighborhoods. And so many people, yes, they are trying to stay well indoors, they try to choose a relatives' home.

That perhaps they feel has stronger, thicker walls, a thicker, more durable roof to be able to crowd into because they are incredibly worried about the impact of these strikes, because we have been seeing a fairly significant number of women and children being killed here, as well.

BALDWIN: Saw a number of those children in your piece singing a nursery rhyme amidst all this violence here. Arwa, thank you.

BERMAN: That was a lovely piece, too. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is playing a pivotal role in the Gaza ceasefire talks. Blair has been meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres. He tells CNN even if a truce is brokered, there's still much more to accomplice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: If we can get a ceasefire in place, then we're going to have to work on the two longer-term questions, which are how do you stop fresh armaments coming into Gaza from the Israeli point of view. And for Gazans how do you get their life back to some sort of normality where they can have the prospect that they're a society changing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Blair is part of the so-called international quartet that is trying to broker a truce in Gaza. It includes the U.N., Russia, the E.U., and the United States.

And the story developing every minute you want to stay with CNN, cnn.com for updates throughout the morning. Today, of course, the latest update has to do with the breaking news out of the region.

Israel has put a temporary halt on a ground invasion to let diplomacy take hold. They say that diplomacy must include when it comes Hamas stopping firing rockets into Israel.

BALDWIN: Want to get to the latest investigation now, talking about Benghazi. The questions, who knew what? Who knew what when? The spokesman for the director of the National Intelligence says the intelligence community, not the White House, State Department or the Justice Department, made changes to the talking points given to government officials, the Obama administration especially.

Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice has taken a lot of heat over those talking points. Rice used them as the basis of comments she made on Sunday talk shows five days after that deadly attack. BERMAN: Investigators say an explosion at an Indianapolis subdivision was no accident. A homicide investigation is now under way. Two people were killed, seven others injured in the November 10th blast.

Several homes, remember, they were leveled, more than 30 others were damaged. Investigators are now searching for a white van that was spotted in front of one of the homes shortly before the explosion.

BALDWIN: The NTSB will recreate a deadly collision between a parade float and a train today. All in this effort to understand how and why this horrible accident happened. They'll stage a train and a truck at the railroad crossing in Midland, Texas, to try to find out what could be seen, when, and where.

Investigators say the track's warning system, the bells, the lights, the gate, they worked as designed last week, giving a 20-second warning to a train was coming. Four veterans were killed during this parade, which was meant to honor them and their military service.

BERMAN: Kind of a troubling story. Police in Idaho say they made an arrest in a zoo break-in that ended with the death of one of its monkeys. The 22-year-old Michael Watkins faces burglary and grand theft charges.

Investigators say Watkins broke into the zoo, went into a restricted area, and for some unknown reason severely beat the monkey. It later died of its injuries. Investigators say a hip led them to Watkins and they found a baseball cap at the scene that belongs to this man.

BALDWIN: President Obama may be a world away, he's ending his whole three-nation swing of Asia, but he's keeping a very, very close eye on the conflict between Israel here in Hamas. His message to the two leaders involved is coming up.

Plus breaking news overnight, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton en route to the troubled region today and breaking news from Christiane Amanpour that a decision has been taken to hold on the military ground offensive. More on that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: It's 11 minutes past the hour here. Want to bring you up to speed as far as this conflict that we've been covering for multiple days now, rockets back and forth between Israel and Gaza.

We have now learned according to Christiane Amanpour, joins us now live from Jerusalem, according to this Israeli government official, Christiane, they are putting a hold temporarily on this potential military ground offensive. What are you learning this morning?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have just spoken to a senior Israeli government official, who is very much in the loop and close to the negotiations, and he has further clarified to me what we've been for the last many hours.

And that is that after the latest meeting of the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his inner security cabinet, which went into the early morning hours our time here in Israel.

The decision has been made, quote, "to hold off on a military ground offensive to give time, limited time," this in the words of that government official, "time to let the diplomatic solution work." According to Israel, their nonnegotiable demand is that any diplomatic solution means an end to Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

So that is what is happening now. Consistent with what we've been reporting over the last many hours that they do prefer to see a diplomatic solution succeed and they're giving time for it, but not endless time.

They confirmed that the military is prepared and ready, should order for a ground offensive into Gaza be given. Now it does make sense that there would be more time given for diplomacy because, as we know, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, is being dispatched here by President Obama.

She's broken off from that meeting in Asia and she's coming here to the region. She'll land here in Israel late tonight our time. Her first meeting will be with the prime minister of Israel then she goes on to meet the Palestinians on the West Bank.

Now these are not Hamas Palestinians. This is the Palestinian Authority that's recognized by the U.S. and Israel. And then, she will then go to Egypt and talk with Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy and Egypt is taking the lead in this negotiations with Hamas.

So U.S. believes that Egypt is playing a very concrete and positive role, and so it looks like all sides are prepared to give some more time for diplomacy to be worked out.

BERMAN: Christiane, what's your sense of the American role in this decision to halt the ground invasion? Obviously, like you said, it would have been very unseemly had it been done while Hillary Clinton was on the ground there. But is she going because there has been progress or is she going because she needs to break some sort of stalemate?

AMANPOUR: Well, probably to lend support, and to, you know, put the U.S. point of view, and to, as they say, look face-to-face at the counterparts and be there in the room with them. This is a very critical time. Everybody in this region knows it.

Of course, everybody in the U.S. knows, too, that the last thing you want is to see a massive escalation of a war in this region that could have the potential negative fallout of spreading in one way or another.

Israel, as you know, can count on the United States to support it, and to be its friend in all these instances. However, the President of the United States, while insisting and reiterating that support, has also said that he believes a ground war would not be to Israel's benefit.

And so, clearly, that is their position and they're trying to se whether there is a diplomatic sway out of this and satisfy Israel's requirements that no more rockets are fired into Israel, and that perhaps have a proper sort of ceasefire that's not just a short one, and that perhaps even from the U.S. point of view, may be able to build on a wider attempt, perhaps in an Obama second term, to re- launch some kind of peace process in this region.

But importantly, I think, the words coming from the U.S., praising the Egyptian role are very important, because we've been told over and again that Egypt is the lead when it comes to talking to Hamas, and to really hammering out the parameters of the ceasefire with Hamas.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Christiane, this is Brooke Baldwin. And I'm glad you bring up this role of Egypt because this is what's been so different, is comparing it to the situation in 2008. Here you have this newly elected leader Mohamed Morsi who has, you know, in the past loyally defended Hamas. Yet at the same time, it's a key player in this region.

You look at the economy in Egypt. You think about how they certainly would want to play this key role in helping broker this peace.

Talk a little bit about how important the role of Egypt is, and, of course, the relationship between Egypt, Israel, and Hamas.

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, it is, as I've been saying, this is the new Middle East, the post-Arab spring Middle East. And this is the first Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this new Middle East.

And I've interviewed President Morsi, and he has been very clear to me that the treaty, the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt remains. And that Egypt will uphold their international obligations. He also, as a second -- as a parenthetical point said, but also Israel must live up to their side of the bargain as well.

So yes the visuals and the optics of the relationship have shifted somewhat so that this -- this Egyptian government, the new Islamist Egyptian government has spoken much more warmly of the Palestinians, much more warmly of Hamas. The prime minister of Egypt has been to Gaza, even since this offensive, the airstrikes into Gaza have started and has stood shoulder to shoulder.

But at the same time, although giving that public support for Hamas, and for the Palestinians, at the same time, working not just behind the scenes but very in front of the scenes, to bring about and to try to make ceasefire happen, and to bring about a diplomatic solution.

Again, it is in no one's interest, least of all Egypt, for this to explode into a bigger war, because Egypt also has problems in the Sinai right next to Gaza. They have their own security issues there, and they don't want to see that exacerbated. And they also, as you point out, don't want to see tensions between Egypt and the U.S., Egypt and the west, because they have these IMF loans, they have USAID, they have, you know, their own domestic issues to take care of, as well.

So, I think this is a very important test of Egypt's new role, or new old role, if you like, the Egyptian government, and Egypt's ability and willingness to be serious players as they have always been in this region, but with a slight change of flavor.

BALDWIN: Slight change of flavor.

Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much. We'll be talking to you a little later in the hour.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN's international anchor and also ABC global affairs anchor, as well.

BERMAN: Meanwhile, 18 minutes after the hour here.

President Obama is wrapping up his history-making trip to Southeast Asia. He is turning his -- he already has turned his attention to the growing crisis in Gaza. As we just mentioned he has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is in the air right now, on the way to the Middle East.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is traveling with the President. She's in Phnom Penh.

And, Jessica, as we've just reported right now, a temporary hold on a possible ground assault in Gaza. That must be welcome news for the Secretary of State as she heads there. I'm sure she did not want to have that going on while she is there.

But what's the goal of her mission there as far as you've been told?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the goal is for them to try to reach some kind of -- well, they're not saying, but she is hoping to achieve a cease-fire while she's there. But it is their goal to get some kind of a peace through shuttle diplomacy and through some of her work through the President's work, and he has also been consulting with his chief national security adviser who's been on this trip throughout Asia, and has also been talking to his counterparts in the Middle East during this trip.

Now, I can tell you that the Secretary of State's trip came about this morning after President Obama had late-night phone calls with President Morsi of Egypt, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then a second phone call at 2:30 in the morning, overnight here in Cambodia, with President Morsi of Egypt. That kind of shuttle diplomacy, talking about what Morsi can do to get Hamas to stop firing those rockets, and then, of course, what he can -- what President Obama can do to get Netanyahu to agree not to start rolling tanks into Gaza. And then, as you get this word that that is exactly what Netanyahu has agreed to do for the time being.

And the President spoke to Secretary Clinton this morning, decided the best thing to do was to send her over there in person to take these meetings.

As Christiane points out, the U.S. is not speaking directly to Hamas, but rather using Egypt as the intermediary, and the President, one of his national security spokespeople, addressed how effective they believe the Egyptians are being right now. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The President and the Secretary believe that the Egyptians have been quite constructive in the conversations we've had with them. That they've expressed a sincere commitment to support a de-escalation here. What's important now is, again, continue to pursue that course, to use the influence that they have over the situation, to encourage that course.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Now, it's very clear talking to the White House that they insist the onus is on Hamas to stop the rocket fire first. That's their top priority, they insist. But no doubt the Secretary of State will be talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu about his obligations here, as well -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Thanks, Jess. Jessica Yellin is in Phnom Penh in Cambodia where the President has been engaged in really high speed, intense, long-distance diplomacy with the conflict in the Middle East right now.

And with the breaking news we just learned, that Israel has decided to put a temporary hold on a possible ground invasion, to let diplomacy work for at least a little while, they say, that one of the grounds, one of the hallmarks of this diplomacy must be Hamas must agree to stop firing rockets into Israel.

BALDWIN: We know Israel had authorized the calling of 75,000 service, 68,000 had already been mobilized according to our crews on the ground there along the border ready to roll. But for now, that is on hold -- again, for now.

Stories developing here each and every minute. Stay with us both on CNN and CNN.com for updates throughout the morning and throughout the day. More news after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: Breaking news here on CNN.

As we have learned from Christiane Amanpour, speaking with her sources, including an Israeli government official, telling us now we have learned that they are putting a hold on a possible ground invasion, a ground offensive, Israel, into, of course Gaza. This pending the fact that they want Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.

For more here on the U.S. response to the conflict, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip, as we now know she is flying en route first to Israel, we go to Jill Dougherty, our foreign affairs correspondent.

And, Jill, what more do we know about the mission, the objective, of the Secretary of State's plan?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's a complex mission, because, after all, this is an extremely complex situation. I mean, look at the people she will be meeting with, of course, Israel's ally, and the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But when it gets to the Palestinians, that's where it gets complicated, because you have, in essence, two governments for the Palestinians. You have the person that you will be meeting with, that is head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. But he has been sidelined. He is not having much of a role in this at all.

And then you have Gaza, under control of Hamas, an organization that the United States considers a terrorist organization. And so we do not -- the United States does not talk to Hamas. So, Hillary Clinton will not be speaking with anyone from the direct people who are carrying out this assault on Israel.

And then finally, Egypt. This new government headed by Mohamed Morsi. He is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And for him, it's another subchapter, because he is in sympathy with Hamas, but also doesn't want to rile the United States or the international community, because they need help from the international community for their economy.

So, as you can see, you really need a diplomat. And Secretary Clinton goes in to that, I wouldn't say necessarily as shuttle diplomacy, because she's not really shuttling to all capitals, if you know what I mean, with Hamas. But it certainly, a delicate political mission, and not guaranteed what will happen.

The most important thing, of course, is what they keep saying, deescalate, get the fighting to stop, get the attacks by Hamas, get those stopped immediately, and then with the immediate future, and then maybe, even the long-term future, which is a peace agreement between the Palestinians, and the Egyptians, which seems very far away at this point.

BALDWIN: Jill Dougherty, thank you.

Again reporting from Jessica Yellin, our chief White House correspondent, the fact that Secretary of State will be landing in Israel right around 10:00 at night Israel time, where she will be meeting with the prime minister.

We're going to stick around, continue talking here about the conflict, both involving Gaza and Israel.

Coming up next, we'll talk to a former PLO adviser, and a former Palestinian peace negotiator about what's happening on the ground right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)