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Israel Holds Ground Offensive into Gaza; Peace Talks Concerning Israel and Hamas Commence; Interview with Israeli Government Spokesman Mark Regev

Aired November 20, 2012 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning: halting its troops -- Israel stopping its military ground offensive hoping for a diplomatic solution, but will it work to create peace with Gaza as bombs and rockets are flying for a seventh day?

Plus, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is headed into the region. Can she help broker a ceasefire?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: The turmoil overseas affecting markets here at home. Oil markets up sharply yesterday but so were stocks. Will this all last as the violence escalates?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A big admission from the intelligence community over that famous now Benghazi memo. Who they say made the changes that caused this whole firestorm.

O'BRIEN: Lots to talk about this morning. It's Tuesday, November 20th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Breaking news. This morning, Israel is agreeing to hold off on a ground offensive in Gaza in hope to brokering some kind of a deal. Here's the very latest. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heading into the region at this hour. She's going to be meting with leaders in Israel, in Egypt, in Ramallah. That's going to start tomorrow. The Israelis carrying out more than 80 air strikes overnight, 95 rockets back across the border, 38 Palestinians killed in the last 24 hours.

CNN has the conflict covered from all sides. Christiane Amanpour is live in Jerusalem, Arwa Damon is on the ground in Gaza City, Frederik Pleitgen is in Ashkelon in Israel along the Gaza border, Jessica Yellin is live in Cambodia where Secretary Clinton has departed heading for the Middle East. We begin with Christiane Amanpour in Jerusalem. Welcome. Give us a sense of this new announcement from Israel. How long do you think Israel is waiting to silt on this halt before it would move forward with sending ground troops in?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what was reported was that a senior government official in the loop close to the talks has confirmed to me this morning that after the latest intense round of conversations and meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his inner security cabinet, which went on into the early morning hours here Jerusalem time, there has been a decision taken to hold on the ground offensive, to give time, he says, limited time to make the diplomatic solution work. That is their preferred option.

However, he also adds that Israeli military is prepared and continues to make its preparations in case, if and when, a decision is taken to escalate to a ground war. In that case the military would be prepared to react immediately.

But clearly what we're hearing and what we've been reporting over the last 24 to 36 hours is that despite the fact that the air strikes continue and Hamas rockets continue, the push on the ground is for a diplomatic solution. And today, a huge number of important diplomats are coming to Israel and to the region, not just the U.N. secretary- general, but the U.S. secretary of state as you've just said has been dispatched by president Obama to meet face-to-face with the principles in this conflict, the prime minister of Israel, the president of Egypt who is taking the lead in organizing these ceasefire negotiations from the Hamas side with Israel. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: Christiane, that sounds like the short-term option, right? You sort of try to hold everything down while you negotiate some kind of a short-term peace. What are people saying about the longer-term options here?

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, there's a lot of devil in the details, as always. You know, each side wants to make sure it's not just a short- term. It's a long-term option, because, on the one hand, Israel wants a long-term solution to the rockets that are being fired into Israel, and into threatening the residents of that area of southern Israel close to Gaza. On the other hand, the Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza want a long-term solution to lifting the siege of Gaza and also want a promise, a pledge from Israel not to target and not to assassinate their top leaders.

So all sides actually want a long-term solution, and that is where, you know, I think the parameters of this are being negotiated. Just what can they achieve now, and what would they be willing to achieve and how would they work toward achieving something more permanent in the long-term? Of course, all of that really for a long, long-term is something that would really be cemented in stone, you need a proper peace process, and that is still a long way off.

O'BRIEN: Christiane Amanpour for us this morning, thank you..

As world leaders are trying to broker that ceasefire, it's been another night of bloodshed and bombings in Gaza. Arwa Damon is live from Gaza City this morning with the very latest there. What are you seeing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're hearing a drone buzzing overhead as we do most of the time here. And then just a short while ago there was an explosion over in that direction, Palestinian sources initially telling us that it seems like the Israelis were targeting what's described as being the house of a commander or an official of Hamas.

We also just heard an explosion to the west in that direction, sort of around the corner from where we are, and right now another explosion in the distance, as well. So most certainly the strikes here are continuing.

We are also continuing -- and we did overnight see rockets being fired from here towards Israel, and the streets below just as deserted as they have been since this offensive, this most recent round of clashes, conflicts, really began, people staying well indoors.

A lot of trepidation here, a lot of anxiety, people really fearful of that ground offensive, but also just as fearful because of these ongoing strikes, people saying that this time around, this most certainly is not the first time that these two sides have reached this sort of a situation. But they say that this time around it's different in the sense that the strikes seem to really be hitting every single neighborhood. A lot of people here staying well indoors.

O'BRIEN: Arwa Damon for us this morning. Thank you, Arwa for the update.

The air raid sirens keep sounding in southern Israel sending citizens scrambling for cover there. Hamas fighters launching dozens more rockets across the border overnight. Three Israelis have been killed since the violence began last week. Frederick Pleitgen reports from Ashkelon, Israel this morning.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there. Yes rocket barrages certainly continue in Ashkelon, as well. There were several rockets fired in the early morning hours and also the town of Behr Sheba, 13 were intercepted by the iron dome missile defense system which is something we've been talking about a lot in the past couple of days. Also one Israeli reserve officer was wounded in the Nagev desert when a rocket hit there.

By and large, however, the Israeli defense forces are saying that this morning they are seeing a significant decrease in the amount of rocket attacks from Gaza. One of the other interesting things that we've been talking about and that's happening is that in the past 1/2 days or so, there have been no long-range rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. Of course, if you recall back to Sunday, the militants there were targeting towns like Tel Aviv, which are very far away from the border with Gaza. Jerusalem was targeted, as well. We haven't seen that in the past day and a half and that can mean two things. Either they don't have those rockets anymore or Israel had taken all of them out by now.

O'BRIEN: Thank you for the update. Appreciate it.

The Israeli President Shimon Peres says his chief concern right now is stopping the Iranians from sending long range missiles to Hamas. He said he sees two story lines playing out, one, very positive, and one that is terribly negative. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI PRESIDENT: The positive is the war that Egyptian president is playing right now and we appreciate very much his efforts. The unpleasant one is the Iranians. They are trying again to encourage Hamas to continue the shooting, the bombing of trying to end imams out of their mind.


O'BRIEN: Peres calls Iran the world's problem, not just because this nuclear ambitions but also his role as a, quote, "center of world terror."

That's a look at the updates from the Middle East. Let's get right to John Berman with some other stories. Good morning.

BERMAN: Good morning, Soledad. We're following more breaking news out of the conflict zone. An attack at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, details still 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 pitchfork. The attacker reportedly also had a knife on him at the time. A witness told Reuters the attacker ran towards the guards and ignored their calls to get on the ground. Guards jumped the man and then took him down.

Now another big story the latest on the investigation into Benghazi. A spokesman for the director of national intelligence says the intelligence community not the White House, state department or justice department made changes to talking points given to government officials. The Obama administration, especially ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, has taken a lot of heat over those talking points. Rice used them as the basis for saying five days afterwards that the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video.

Four men from southern California are charged in an alleged terror plot to kill Americans and destroy U.S. targets overseas. They were arrested after the FBI uncovered their plans to engage in, quote, "violent jihad." Authorities say the four planned to join and train with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Indiana police now believe an explosion that leveled several homes was no accident. They've opened up a homicide investigation. Two people were killed and seven others injured in the November 10th explosion at the Richmond Hills subdivision. Detectives are now searching for a white van that was spotted in the neighborhood shortly before the blast.

Republican Congressman Allen West has conceded defeat to Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy. That's in the race for Florida's 18th Congressional district. West, who is a Tea Party, favorite released a statement this morning saying quote, "While many questions remain unanswered today I am announcing that I will take no further action to contest the outcome of this election." Final results of a recount Sunday put Murphy ahead of west by over 1,900 votes.

The latest now in the Petraeus sex scandal. We'll be hearing from Tampa socialite Jill Kelley's twin sister Natalie today. She'll be joined by attorney Gloria Allred. The news conference is meant to clear up possible misconceptions and explain her relationship with Petraeus and his wife, his wife Holly. Former CIA director David Petraeus and General John Allen each wrote glowing letters to help her during child custody hearings. Jill Kelley's e-mails exposed Petraeus' affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. Complicated web we weave.

O'BRIEN: We're on the verge of jumping the shark on this.

BERMAN: Gloria Allred is in town.

O'BRIEN: I can't wait for that press conference certainly. Business new, Christine's got that.

ROMANS: A recent survey showed that more people are following the fiscal cliff than they are the Petraeus scandal. So maybe there's some reality in the world.

Stock futures flat this morning, guys. Yesterday's optimism giving way to revived concerns this morning about Europe. Moody's downgraded France's credit rating late last night, and Europe's finance ministers are meeting in Brussels today to talk about Greece. Yesterday the Dow jumped 207 points. That's more than 1.5 percent. That was the biggest day for stocks in months. Strength in real estate adding to yesterday's good mood. Existing home sales rose more than two percent in October and home prices are up more than 11 percent from a year ago. That's right. According to the National Association of Realtors the median price of an existing home $178,600. Home prices have risen for eight consecutive months now.

An eleventh hour twist in the Hostess liquidation drama, a judge pushing hostess and its striking union into a mediation session today to possibly avoid liquidating the company and cutting more than 18,000 jobs. If today's session is not successful, Hostess goes back to court tomorrow. Investors who own this company want to close the factories, they want to sell the brand, they want to liquidate the whole thing. Brands like Ho-Hoes, Ding Dongs, Twinkies, they may be iconic. The company says they're not making any money.

O'BRIEN: How can they not make money?

ROMANS: Because you've got a striking bakers unions and idle factories. Some of these factories, the technology is pretty old. When was the last time you bought a hostess Ho-Ho or a Twinkie?

O'BRIEN: Like recently.

BERMAN: I love Twinkies but I can't remember the last time I went in a store and bought one.

O'BRIEN: I think they're iconic and I think the PR value you could really, you know, what other brand has a name that everyone is talking about.

ROMANS: Another company or another investor comes in and buys the brand and doesn't have the labor issue to go with it. O'BRIEN: Well, resolve the labor issues. Obviously people need jobs, they want to work for a viable company.

ROMANS: Exactly.

BERMAN: We have a mediator right here.

ROMANS: Hire Soledad O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: And I eat Twinkies.

ROMANS: Last time I ate a Twinkie was at a state fair. You eat the fried Twinkie.

O'BRIEN: Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning -- and that ends that conversation. Doesn't it? Let's talk about Israel a little bit more putting a ground invasion of Gaza on hold. Is that going to last, and for how long? We're going to talk to a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming up.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is headed to the Middle East in an effort to end the bloody Israel/Hamas conflict. She's going to be talking to Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian officials with the message that it's in no one's interest to have this conflict escalate. CNN's chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia this morning where the secretary is just leaving. Good morning.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, good morning, Soledad. Secretary of state Clinton has actually left here, is headed now to Israel to meet with her first stop there will be to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On a trip that came about rather suddenly the way White House officials explained to us. President Obama came on this trip with the express purpose of focusing on the pacific. He meant it to be his primary objective right after the election. But throughout the trip he has been briefed by Secretary Clinton and his chief national security adviser on developments in the Middle East. The two of them were on the phone constantly with their counterparts in the Middle East.

And we're told that yesterday, the president, after his summit meetings here in Cambodia, spent a very late night on the phone with President Morsi of Egypt, and with Prime Minister Netanyahu, doing some shuttle diplomacy of his own until 2:30 in the morning Cambodia time, and then woke up this morning, sat down with secretary Clinton and the two of them then decided the best way for them to try to push forward toward a truce, toward some kind of temporary ceasefire that would allow them to get to a place where they could work out a longer- term agreement would be to send secretary Clinton there in person, and that's what they agreed to do.

One of the president's officials said that still the onus is on Hamas, and put it this way, this is what he had to say earlier today, Soledad.


BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The bottom line still remains that Hamas has to stop this rocket fire. So ultimately, they're the ones who are going to have to be a part of a solution that ends the type of terror that Israeli citizens faced over so many months with this barrage of rockets coming into Israeli territory.


YELLIN: For Secretary Clinton who has said that she is leaving at the end of the first term, obviously, being able to get some sort of temporary cease-fire deal would be a nice way to wrap up her tenure as secretary of state, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: And good for everybody else around the world, as well. Jessica Yellin for this morning, appreciate that.

Let's bring in from Jerusalem, he is spokesperson for the Israeli government and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We were hearing air raid sirens that were going off right behind you just a few moments ago. Can you tell me about that?

MARK REGEV, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: At the moment I am stuck in the chair here in your studio so I haven't got more information to share with you except to say that the sirens have stopped and it appears life has gone back to normal. But the mere fact that Hamas shoots a rocket at Jerusalem it says more about them than it does about anything else. Shoot a rocket at this city, a city that's got Jewish neighborhoods, that's got Arab neighborhoods, that's got holy sites on all three banks, what does that say about them? They could just as easily hit anyone, anything. It really shows they have no sense of common decency of human values.

O'BRIEN: And I have to note that Wolf Blitzer just tweeted that Hamas rockets just fell in Behr Sheba and there are casualties. That is where he is reporting from.

You heard Jessica Yellin reporting just a moment ago, she was obviously on the whole ground offensive. We know Secretary Clinton is now en route to deal with Egyptian officials and Israeli officials and Palestinian officials. How long are you willing to put this hold on any kind of buildup toward a ground war, is it 24 hours? Is it days? Is it weeks?

REGEV: We would like to see a diplomatic solution, if that's possible. If it's possible to get the end of these incoming rockets on our people, if it's possible to do that peacefully, we're all in favor. We prefer a diplomatic solution.

Tonight my prime minister will be meeting both with the secretary of state he she arrives, and of course before that he has a meeting with the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. The bottom line for us is, we want peace and quiet. We want an end to these rockets that have been raining down on Israel from Gaza. It has to stop. No one, no government on this planet, would sit by idly and see its civilian population targeted the way the Israeli civilian population has been targeted. It has to end. It has to finish.

O'BRIEN: You know a minute ago we played some sound from Shimon Peres who sort of talked about two paths. He gave Egypt credit for helping to broker some peace, I think, is too strong to say, but be in negotiations and then he said the Iranians are the problem, they've been sending arms, et cetera. Give me a sense of what you think about what Egypt has been doing so for, and in their leadership on this front.

REGEV: Well, the president is exactly right. First point, obviously the Egyptians have a pivotal role to try to help us get out of this, to try to find a situation where we can have peace and quiet for our citizens, that they don't have to live in fear of an incoming rocket launch from Gaza.

And he's right about Iran, too. You know those rockets that are fired as Israeli civilians, it has to be stressed they're not firing rockets at military targets. They're firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities as we just saw here in Jerusalem. They're firing rockets and trying to kill just normal people going to work, going to school, they don't care about that.

And the truth is on those rockets that are fired at Israel there are three words, "made in Iran." There's no doubt about that. We know that Hamas hasn't got the ability to make these sorts of ground-to- ground, very military-style rockets by themselves in Gaza. They're getting them from the Iranians. And they are in many ways a forward point for Iran in their struggle in their war against Israel.

O'BRIEN: Mark Regev is the Israeli government spokesman joining us this morning. Thank you for talking with us. We certainly appreciate it.

I should reiterate people should follow Wolf Blitzer right now and Anderson Cooper who is are reporting for us from the region. They've got amazing tweets for us. Thank you, sir, for your time. We appreciate it.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, time again to talk about the war on Christmas. Or is it separation of church and state? The fight to display a nativity scene in a park has taken a new turn. We'll explain what happened. Our STARTING POINT team is headed in. Short break and we're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. Our team this morning, Will Cain, the Will Cain memorial seat down there.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good morning. What happened?

O'BRIEN: Honorary. Good, Only good. Michael Konig is back. He's the political director for Russell Simmons, editor in chief of Dana Bash is with us, senior Congressional correspondent. Dana bash is with us. John Berman is with us as well. He's going to update us on some of the big stories making news today.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad. Protestors in Texas trying to block construction of the controversial Keystone pipeline, others suspended themselves from a 50 foot tree. Police used pepper spray to haul off four of the demonstrators.

Vice president Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden welcoming a group of wounded warriors to the naval observatory in Washington for an early Thanksgiving. The 26 guests are patients of the nearby Walter Reed National Military Medical enter. They were selected because they can't make it home for thanksgiving with their families this year.

A federal judge in California has ruled that the city of Santa Monica can legally ban a nativity scene that's been on display in Palisades Park for the last 60 years. In recent years, atheists protested against the theme so in June the city council voted to ban all private displays. But backers of the nativity scene, they sued. And the judge says, until the lawsuit is decided the city can go ahead with its nativity scene ban.

O'BRIEN: Is it so hard to throw up a little something for everybody?

BERMAN: It's a very busy green there.

O'BRIEN: Come on. I think it's Kumbayah, the holidays.

BERMAN: In the spirit of getting along, one guy knows how to get along, David Beckham. After spending six years in Los Angeles, superstar David Beckham will be leaving the L.A. galaxy after the MLS cup game on December 1st. Beckham says he wants to experience one last challenge before the end of my playing career. He gave no hint. He played China and Dubai and Brazil. He's still going to look like David Beckham no matter where he plays.



CAIN: The world's largest soccer superstar to the United States do anything to make soccer more popular here?

BERMAN: Soccer's been on the rise over time.


O'BRIEN: I think so. Also good for America. I support all of it. Yes. To the Beckhams, thumbs up.

All right still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton en route now to the Middle East. Will she be able to help bring about a ceasefire? We'll have live reports from the center of it all coming up next.