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The State of Fidel; Interview With Syrian Ambassador to United States Imad Moustapha; Israel's Strategy?

Aired August 1, 2006 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And thank you all for joining us tonight. Glad to have you with us.
Tonight, we're watching a number of top stories, including the crisis in the Middle East, Fidel Castro's health, and the scandal involving actor Mel Gibson.

Our in-depth coverage begins with the latest war bulletins.

As we speak, a new Israeli raid is unfolding deep inside Lebanon and close to the border of Syria. A bunch of reports say helicopters swooned in to the Bekaa Valley, apparently carrying troops to Baalbeck, a Hezbollah stronghold near the Syrian border.

The town has been hit repeatedly from the air. Lebanon security sources say Israeli troops entered a Baalbeck hospital tonight. But there are conflicting reports as to whether anyone was taken out. Hezbollah says it has trapped the Israeli commandos in the hospital. Israel isn't confirming or denying any of this at this hour.

We are also seeing intense fighting in southern Lebanon, as Israel moves against other Hezbollah fortifications. At least three Israeli soldiers have been killed today.

Now, just an hour ago, coming out meetings with top White House officials in Washington, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told reporters that the end of the war is still weeks away, but not months away.

We have correspondents standing by in Beirut and all along the Israeli-Lebanese border. In our control room, we are also bringing in live shots from Havana, Cuba, and Miami. We will get to them in just a little bit.

Now, all day long, John Roberts has been tracking the Israeli offensive. He joins me now from the Israeli-Lebanese border.

John, let's start off with what we think is happening in Baalbeck right now.


We contacted officials from the Israeli Defense Forces a short time ago. The only response that they had to our questions about what is going on in the ancient city of Baalbeck was, no comment. We hope to hear from them, as the hours progress, what's going on up there.

But here's what we know from Lebanon authorities, and as well from our correspondents who are on the Lebanese side of the border. According to Lebanese officials, Israeli forces swept into the ancient city of Baalbeck, a Hezbollah stronghold, in helicopters. They were dropped on to the ground. They went into a Hezbollah-run hospital in the northern part of the city. They went around, checking identifications of patients and of doctors and of workers there.

Don't know what they're looking for. But there's a couple of operating theories here. One could be that they're looking for wounded Hezbollah military leaders. The other theory is that, perhaps, they're looking for those two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, the ones who were taken from the area around Zarit on January -- July the 12th, rather -- and they -- that was the incident, of course, that started off this entire conflict here in the Middle East -- so, no confirmation yet from the Israeli side, but Lebanese authorities saying that they went into the hospital -- Hezbollah sources saying that they have got the Israelis trapped inside that hospital and that, in the perimeter of that building, there's fierce fighting going on.

Now, in terms of what is going on here along the border, today, we spent all day traveling from the very northeastern point of -- of Israel, Metulla, all the way to most of the way to the Mediterranean Sea, checking in with the hot spots along the way.

We saw a tremendous amount of fierce fighting and evidence that there's a major buildup of troop movements under way.


ROBERTS (voice-over): From a hilltop right on the Lebanese border, we watched the Israeli military pound positions in a town they say is a Hezbollah base.

It's just two miles from where two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped on July 12, the incident that touched off this war.

(on camera): This is where the heaviest of the fighting is right now. This is Aita al-Shaab. You can see that the Israeli air force dropped what appears to be a 500-pound bomb on this village. It has been shelled all day, and there's heavy fighting on the city streets.

The Israeli army is in there with a lot of ground forces. They're in close-quarters fighting, very, very heavy combat.

(voice-over): The battle has been costly for the Israeli military, three soldiers killed so far, 25 wounded. Israel claims, it killed at least 20 Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon in the past 48 hours.

We stay on the hilltop, watching the battle, until soldiers arrive and tell us there are snipers in the village, and it is far too dangerous to be here.

We move to another location another a border route pockmarked with Katyusha rocket hits and evidence that Hezbollah mortar rounds found vehicles they were looking for.

On the road to an Israeli military outpost, we see a powerful Merkava tank being towed back from the battle in Aita al-Shaab, still smoking from a direct hit by a high-explosive Hezbollah round.

And the fighting is only expected to intensify. As diplomats seek a way to end the hostilities, Israel is expanding its ground campaign, now intent on pushing Hezbollah 14 miles north to Lebanon's Litani River, determined to hold on to a broad safe zone until an international force can arrive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are at the beginning of a diplomat process, which, I believe, ultimately, will lead to a cease-fire with totally different conditions and circumstances from those which existed on our northern border.

ROBERTS: To ensure those conditions are different, the Israeli army is moving more heavy armor up to the front.

(on camera): This is just one many areas in northern Israel where the Israeli army is staging for what increasingly appears to be a major ground operation. And sources tell us that, all the way along the border, from Metulla, almost all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, there are scenes similar to this, as tanks and armor are brought to the front line, in preparation to go over the border into southern Lebanon.

(voice-over): Despite the deaths in Aita al-Shaab, among the troops, morale is high.


ROBERTS: As dusk settles in, a young tank commander gives a salute of bravado, preparing to head into battle. Farther up the border, infantry forces put on black camouflage makeup and gear up for what will be an intense fight on the battlefield -- the end of this day only just the beginning of a long night ahead.


ZAHN: So, what is the expectation, John, as the night wears on there?

ROBERTS: The expectation, Paula, is, is that they are going to continue to bring more troops, more armor, more tanks to the border, in -- in order to be able to build up those forces, so that they can go in, in much greater numbers than they have been before.

Don't forget, they called up as many as 30,000 reserves. The Israeli government, the Israeli military, wants to use them. The Israeli military always had a plan to push Hezbollah back as far as possible. The political will to do that seemed to ebb somewhat earlier this week, late last week.

But now it appears as though the Israeli government has taken a stance that, "We cannot lose this fight," because, if they do, that would be an enormous sign of weakness in the Israeli military, in this region. It might invite more organizations like Hezbollah to try to attack Israel.

So, there's a real determination here, Paula, that they want to win this fight. And they are going to put the -- the boots on the ground to try to do that.

ZAHN: And if and when you get confirmation of what's happening in Baalbeck, we will come back to you live.

John Roberts, thanks.

Now, in Lebanon, there was hope that the 48-hour halt in Israeli airstrikes would be a chance for people to finally get out of southern Lebanon, those that have been trapped there for weeks, and for food and medicine to finally get in to them. Well, it really hasn't worked out that way.

Michael Ware has that part of the story from Beirut tonight.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There was hope the guns would be silent, but it still felt like war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's be very clear. We did not have a cease-fire. We did not even have a cessation of hostilities. There was aerial bombardment by Israel yesterday. There were rockets fired by Hezbollah. There are ground -- ground troops' offensive today.

WARE: Israel's partial suspension of air attacks for 48 hours was meant to allow aid in and evacuees out of battered villages in southern Lebanon. It didn't entirely work out that way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israel did not concur with our requests. So, two of three convoys heading south, two-thirds of our supplies -- and they are not a lot, really, compared to the needs down there -- did not proceed from Beirut.

WARE: Though airstrikes were minimal, fierce infantry assaults continued. Israeli troops probed forward on two fronts, covered by artillery and tank fire. Amid the fighting, a few aid convoys still braved the journey.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had to literally go off-road and drive through orchards, because there, you know, were massive craters where the bombs have fallen in on the roads. We heard a lot of incoming rounds. But we certainly didn't hear any outgoing. So, we don't know what it is -- you know, why they're being targeted there. But they are definitely being hit.

WARE: Some people could not bear to abandon their homes near the front lines, preferring to risk death, rather than face life as refugees. Others took their moment to flee.

(on camera): Well beyond the front lines here in Beirut, the sense of a city under siege is growing. People are stocking up on medicines and petrol, amid fears Lebanon may soon be cut off from the rest of the world completely.

WARE (voice-over): This pharmacy is rationing drugs. Hospitals are running out of some medicines, so demand here is high. But the pharmacist worries most about those on dialysis or chemotherapy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We cannot stay more than two weeks in that situation. We are facing true problems with patients that the medication is a must for them. So, this is my fear.

WARE: With daily flour deliveries meager, these baker shelves are like this most of the day. The government is trying to maintain fuel supplies, taking steps to ration gas. Some pumps have already run out.

But frustration is abundant.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): It's all children. They're killing children. They're killing old people. We are Christians. We didn't kill anyone.

That Bush, Bush, that -- that Bush man.


ZAHN: So, Michael, you have shown us so many of the many victims that are now caught up in this humanitary -- humanitarian crisis. And we know that U.N. officials are outraged they haven't been able to get more supplies into these folks who need it.

Do they have -- do they have any faith at all that this will change in the days to come, with more Israeli cooperation?

WARE: Not at all, I'm afraid, Paula.

And, in fact, I -- I suspect that people believe that things are only going to get worse from here. I mean, you have heard all the talk about an impending buildup and -- and greater offensive operations by the Israeli Defense Force. There's no reason to disbelieve that. And the people of Beirut, much too accustomed to -- to war themselves, you can really feel, among them, that they can sense that something is changing, that perhaps this war is about to evolve.

We have seen the Israelis conducting reconnaissance probes, movements in force, raiding parties. We are now seeing them strike deep within Lebanese soil. This very much is a deep-strike operation, 90 miles from their own border. So, perhaps, this is the prelude to something bigger -- Paula.

ZAHN: Michael Ware, thanks so much.

And, once again, we need to point out, the Israelis say this war is not against the Lebanese people, but that, when Hezbollah chooses to hide in the civilian population, these are the kinds of problems you end up with.

Now, coming up, other top stories we're following, including the extraordinary turn of events bringing change to Cuba and sending shockwaves all over the world.


ZAHN (voice-over): The mysterious state of Fidel Castro -- a sudden illness, a handover of power, and people everywhere wondering about a world without Fidel.

And the drunk driving arrest, the anti-Semitic statements -- Mel Gibson says he's really, really sorry, as embarrassing pictures pop up and a TV deal goes bad. Will his latest apology save his career?

All that and more just ahead.



ZAHN: An important part of tonight's "Top Story" coverage in the crisis in the Middle East: the home front here in the U.S. -- coming up, the American Jewish community divided, divided loyalties, and worries about violence reaching our shores.

Our "Top Story" coverage continues now with the breaking news out of Lebanon tonight. Heavy fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas rages on in southern Lebanon. But Lebanese security sources say Israeli forces have launched an operation deep into northern Lebanon, outside the city of Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley, close to the border with Syria.

Israeli troops are said to be on the ground, fighting inside a Hezbollah-owned hospital, with support in the air from helicopters and fighter jets.

Right now, I want to bring in Syria's ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, who joins us from Washington tonight.

Welcome back. Glad to see you tonight.


ZAHN: So, what do you make of these reports about how close Israeli troops are to the border of your country?

MOUSTAPHA: Well, on one hand, they are very close, but, on the other hand, they are still in Lebanon.

And, having said this, I actually -- they -- I think Israel is making a terrible mistake. They are not learning the lessons of history. The last time...

ZAHN: All right, but let's come back to any sort of vulnerability your country feels. You say, after all, they're not very close to the Syrian border. Is there any level of concern from your government tonight that the war will be broadened to include Syria?

MOUSTAPHA: Of course we are concerned, particularly because of -- of that -- the -- the target. Last two weeks, Israel has been targeting Lebanese positions that are very close to the Lebanese- Syrian borders.

Yesterday, we -- we announced a -- a high level of alertness in our armed forces. And -- and we increased the -- the -- the state of readiness. And we are prepared. All options are open. And, too, if -- if -- if Israel...


ZAHN: What does that mean, exactly, Mr. Ambassador, all options are open?


ZAHN: What is it that Syria is prepared to do?

MOUSTAPHA: This means that, if Israel decides to attack Syria, then we will defend ourselves.

However, having said this, we still -- we are -- we still adhere to our original position. As of day one of these hostilities, we have called on an immediate cessation of hostilities and a prompt exchange of prisoners between Hezbollah and Israel. We think that what is happening in Lebanon is akin to a war crime, and the massacre is still going on against the Lebanese civilians.

ZAHN: Let's come back to the military part of this and how it could ultimately affect your country.

You talk about your troops being on a high level of -- of readiness, but the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. last night said on CNN -- quote -- "Syria is a very weak country, a very poor country, with an antiquated army."

Your response to that?

MOUSTAPHA: Well, you know, the Israelis would say whatever they want, and they would say one thing, and then they would say the contrary in another venue. Let me remind that the Israelis, the very same ambassador was saying that Hezbollah...

ZAHN: But we're talking about the strength of your army and...

MOUSTAPHA: Yes, of course.


ZAHN: ... and how you're positioned.


MOUSTAPHA: The very same ambassador was saying three or four days ago that Hezbollah is using very sophisticated, advanced weaponry provided to it from Syria.

So, they have to decide, are we providing Hezbollah with these weapons, or are we a -- a weak army with antiquated arms?

ZAHN: All right. Well, what are you? Are you providing these weapons, these sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, as..

MOUSTAPHA: We are a country -- we -- we are...

ZAHN: ... most of the war has accused your country of doing?

MOUSTAPHA: We are a country that knows how to defend itself, on one hand. On the other hand, we have invited Israel, time and again, to engage in a peace process, leading to the resolution of this conflict. We are not war mongers.

Israel is the war monger.

ZAHN: All right.

MOUSTAPHA: Israel is -- is the terrorist country in the Middle East.

ZAHN: But you're telling us tonight...


ZAHN: ... that you don't have an antiquated army?

MOUSTAPHA: We -- I'm telling you that we know exactly how to defend our country. And we will do this if Israel attacks us.

However, having said this, we do not want to further escalate the situation in the Middle East. What we really want is to find a solution to this ongoing problem.

ZAHN: All right.

MOUSTAPHA: Syria is ready to engage, constructively, whenever the United States decides that it's time for peace and for real diplomacy.

ZAHN: And that's something we are going to address a little bit later on in the show with another guest.

Ambassador Imad Moustapha, thank you for your time.

Once again, the Israelis have said again today they have no intention of involving Syria in the war at all.

Now, the fighting in the Middle East has exposed a big divide in America's Jewish community -- coming up, the hopes and fears here, and bombs and rockets fly over there.

But, next, a Lebanese town that has been cut off for 20 days, no help, just bombs -- and now a desperate scramble to get away.


ZAHN: Welcome back.

Tonight, Israel's justice minister says Hezbollah has taken a serious beating, with 300 guerrillas dead, during three weeks of fighting.

But Lebanese civilians are also taking a beating. Hundreds have been killed, and thousands upon thousands are still trying to get away from all the fighting.

Ben Wedeman takes us through one town in southern Lebanon tonight.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CAIRO BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): The residents of Aitaroun are leaving as fast as they can. Israel's 48-hour period of relative restraint is almost over.

After nearly three weeks in cramped shelters, the young, the old, the infirm are desperate to go.

"Get us out of here," says this woman. "Please, get us out of here."

The first to reach the mainly Shiite village of Aitaroun, a group of journalists, who do what they can to help.

(on camera): The people in this town have been under bombardment for 20 days. The Red Cross hasn't made it here. The U.N. hasn't made it here.

(voice over): Everyone is fleeing, but for one man, dazed, who stares the rubble of his village. The neighboring village of Ainata (ph) has also been pounded. An unexploded artillery round lies in the main square. The stench of decomposing bodies rises from the ruins.

Hevrid Haraf (ph) says she and her son were pinned down in their house for five days, with the body of her dead sister killed in the bombing. Abez Khalil (ph) came to get his sister and found her dead under the rubble of her home.

"It was unbearable, unbearable," is all Ahmed Bassam (ph) can say. He's going straight to Beirut -- everyone here painfully aware, there's little time left.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Aitaroun, south Lebanon.


ZAHN: And what do the Israelis say about all of that tonight?

Well, a bit earlier, I spoke with Miri Eisin, an Israeli government spokeswoman, about what all of this is meant to achieve.


ZAHN: So, tonight is the night that we see the expiration of the cessation of bombing. What happens now?

MIRI EISIN, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Essentially, what will happen now is, we will continue to pursue Hezbollah wherever they are.

We will never target civilians. We haven't done it in the past. And it's a terrible thing when we have hit civilians. But we will continue to pursue Hezbollah, the rockets, the launchers, wherever we see them.

ZAHN: So, will we see a dramatic increase in not only aerial bombardment, but ground action as well, now that we have seen a 48- hour lull in the campaign come and go?

EISIN: Israel never stopped with the ground campaign, not over the last 48 hours. We have been doing it for the last three weeks. And we will continue to do so.

What we have said now is that we are going to try, as much as possible, to break down that terrible word, infrastructure, which, essentially, is this military buildup. We will not go back to the situation that we were in three weeks ago, where we had this terrorist buildup on our northern border.

So, I don't expect to see, suddenly, outrageous operations. We're not about to invade Lebanon. What we're doing is, we're systematically taking apart everything that Hezbollah built up on our northern border.

ZAHN: Your prime minister brushed off criticism today that the Israelis have not been able to stop Hezbollah's ability to keep firing these rockets into Israeli territory. And he seemed to indicate, no promise has ever been made that you can successfully wipe out Hezbollah altogether.

So, what is the goal here, and how do you define success?

EISIN: I think the goal, Paula, is very clear. And it hasn't changed from the beginning.

We have said it clearly. We want Hezbollah to be disarmed -- disarmed -- no more arms for a terrorist organization that sits on our northern border, inside the sovereign country of Lebanon.

ZAHN: Is it realistic to think that you will ever be able to get rid of all of Hezbollah's weapons?

EISIN: I want to hope so. I'm Israeli. And I live here. Do we think that we are going to dispel terrorism and that it's going to disappear? No. But we do think that you have to stand up to terrorists. We have to stand up, and we have to defend the citizens of the state of Israel.

ZAHN: Miri Eisin, we really appreciate your input tonight. Thank you so much for your time.

EISIN: Thank you, Paula.


ZAHN: And we, of course, have been seeing images of horror and suffering for days now. How is the fighting affecting America's Jewish community? Coming up next in our "Top Story" coverage: a look at the growing divide and increasing worry.

Then, a little bit later on, we will go live to Havana and Miami on a night that Fidel Castro is out of power. Some people are celebrating and hoping that he actually isn't alive.


ZAHN: And we welcome you back as we recap the breaking news. In tonight's top story coverage, Lebanese security sources say the Israeli troops and helicopters are hitting Baalbeck, hitting hard a Hezbollah stronghold, deep inside Lebanon's Bekaa Valley close to the Syrian border.

Now the Lebanese say Israeli commandos entered a Baalbeck hospital, but now there are conflicting reports as to whether anyone was taken out and what exactly they were looking for in the first place. Israel isn't confirming any of this or denying anything at this hour.

Now Mideast violence is also sending waves of fear through America's Jewish communities, specially. After last Friday's deadly shooting at a Jewish federation office in Seattle that we covered live right here, it confirmed the FBI's earlier warnings to Jewish organizations all over the country that they too could become targets of violence. But that doesn't mean American Jews are firmly behind Israel's military policy. Kareen Wynter found a surprising divide on the West Coast.


KAREEN WYNTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The conflict escalating in the Middle East is also stirring up a bitter divide in places you wouldn't expect like Beverly Hills, California. Jewish Americans at odds over whether Israel should agree to an immediate cease-fire against Hezbollah positions in Lebanon.

MARCY WINOGRAD, FOUNDER, L.A. JEWS FOR PEACE: This could spell the end of the Middle East. I mean, we're on the precipitous.

WYNTER: Marcy Winograd has felt the backlash, but refused to back down. This anti-war activist isn't afraid to approach complete strangers, be it on the street corner, or corner deli, to simply talk.

WINOGRAD: All right, why don't we take a seat over here.

WYNTER: A conversation over coffee quickly turns heated.

WINOGRAD: You have to talk to whoever is quote, "the enemy." There is no other way around it.

JERRY BERGSTEIN, SUPPORTS ISRAELI MILITARY ACTION: You sort of have like a kumbaya, everybody hold hands and let's all get together and love each other mentality,

WINOGRAD: What I see is a perpetual war policy where Israeli youth will be sent to fight a guerrilla war in Lebanon. Did the Algerians -- did the French beat the Algerians? Did the United States beat the Vietcong? What are we sentencing the youth of Israel to?

WYNTER: Winograd says the recent attack on Qana is reason enough for Israel to back down, with more than 50 civilians killed, including women and children.

BERGSTEIN: Let me ask you a question. If the government of Israel tomorrow announced that they are unilaterally imposing a cease- fire and they are unilaterally withdrawing their troops from Lebanon, do you think that Hezbollah would say, "Isn't that great, look what they're doing in the cause of peace." Do you think that makes Israel stronger?

WINOGRAD: I think that that's the only course of action.


WINOGRAD: What Israel is doing is going to backfire just as it did when Israel was in Lebanon previously, in that these attacks on Lebanon which result in the deaths of many innocent civilians, a lot of children, will have the opposite of the intended effect in that it will empower. These attacks will empower Hezbollah.

RICK CHERTOFF, ANTI-WAR ACTIVIST: We've got to stop this. We realize we cannot solve this problem with guns.

WYNTER: Winograd can't have conversations like this with her own friends anymore because of the friction.

WINOGRAD: People are in their own bubbles and very hard to bridge the gap. People are so polarized. I would like to see most Jews come to an understanding that violence is not going to solve a political problem. It could indeed make it much worse.

WYNTER: Even here at home. Kareen Wynter, CNN, Los Angeles.


ZAHN: There's also some friction over the Jewish divide with our next guest. Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of "Tikkun Magazine." He favors an immediate cease-fire and thinks civilian deaths are hurting Israel's image. And Rabbi Robert Levine, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, who believes Israel should ratchet up the force and eliminate the Hezbollah threat. Thank you both for being with us.

Rabbi Lerner, we're going to put up on the screen now a full-page ad that your organization took out in "The New York Times" calling on Israel to stop the slaughter, start a new spirit of reconciliation. You're Jewish, why don't you support Israel's military actions?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER, EDITOR, TIKKUN MAGAZINE: First of all, I'm a strong supporter of Israel. I love Israel. That's precisely why we took this ad, because Israel is pursuing a self-destructive policy. But I don't think it makes sense to understand Lebanon without understanding the larger context. And the larger context is that there's been a war going on for at least the 60 years and maybe one could say for the last 120 years. And it's -- doesn't make sense to say, who started it and who did what to what?

Instead, we need to focus on a solution, and a solution not just in Lebanon, but a solution to the core issue of the way in which Palestinians have been treated and that requires a whole new attitude, an attitude deeply rooted in Judaism, an attitude of love and kindness and generosity towards the other, not just toward ourselves.

ZAHN: All right, Rabbi Levine, you've heard it. Your fellow rabbi doesn't think that the military solution will achieve anything at all. Why won't diplomacy work and why wouldn't a cease-fire at least stop the killing of all of these innocent victims we have seen for days on end?

RABBI ROBERT LEVINE, PRESIDENT, NY BOARD OF RABBIS: Good evening, Paula. The pictures, the images are heart rending. The fact of the matter is Michael takes a standing on moral equivalence. Everybody is to blame. The truth of the matter is, it's a different Middle East today. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, are really attempting to do something that's never been done before. America's bogged down in Iraq, let's exploit vulnerabilities. The truth of the matter is...

ZAHN: ... So what would you do? What would have been just action for the Lebanese coming into Israel, capturing two soldiers, killing eight. Would you have done nothing at all militarily, Rabbi Levine?

LEVINE: The truth of the matter is when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, there was a buffer zone of three and a half miles that Israel lost.

At this point in time, it is important to say that Israel has got to go in, has got to disarm Hezbollah, the ability of Hezbollah to fire rockets at the third largest population center. I wonder what Americans would think if al Qaeda were able to target the third largest population center in the United States. Was there moral equivalence about al Qaeda after 2001? Should there have been? The answer is -- in 2004, Paula.

ZAHN: Let's bring Rabbi Lerner in here for a second because I want to move ahead here. The Israelis tonight are even acknowledging, Rabbi Lerner, that they're not going to successfully take out Hezbollah. What about the idea that this ultimately will backfire and empower Hezbollah?

LERNER: I'm afraid it will because I certainly have no interest in supporting Hezbollah. But I do think that we need to go at a deeper level. Instead of simply dealing with the current struggle, we need an international conference that would be pulled together to resolve once and for all the issues between Israel and Palestine, which is the core of the issue and the core of the hatred in the Arab world towards Israel. Because unfortunately, we have not been adequately compassionate and kind and generous towards the Palestinian people who lost hundreds of thousands of them were made refugees in 1948.


ZAHN: Gentlemen, we're going to have to...

LEVINE: ... I'm very much in favor of a two-state solution. I really am. The point is, you can only dialogue with those who are willing to sit down and dialogue with you. They want to destroy...

LERNER: ... Palestinians want to do that.

ZAHN: I've got to cut off our dialogue tonight, a very complicated story as both of you have shown us tonight with very complicated and deep roots. Rabbis Robert Levine and Michael Lerner, thank you for both of your opinions tonight.

We're going to keep on monitoring the crisis in the Middle East. But just ahead, our other top stories coming up next. Live reports from Miami and Havana on a night Fidel Castro is out of power. Some uncertainty about his condition tonight and some people are celebrating, actually hoping that he isn't alive. And a little later on, more major damage control for Mel Gibson. How many times will he have to say he's really, really sorry?


ZAHN: We take you live to Little Havana, Miami tonight where there's much speculation over the condition of Fidel Castro tonight and hope among this crowd that his poor health might signal a regime change. Of course, we have had no official word yet from Cuban officials about the condition of dictator Fidel Castro. He went into surgery. He temporarily turned over power to his brother because of this intestinal problem. And since that news got out last night, rumors that Castro is dead or close to it have been everywhere, on the air in Cuba, all over Web sites today. But details about his condition have been scarce, even the message aired by Cuban TV tonight, supposedly from Castro himself. Really mysterious when you check it out. And we will right now, from Havana, with our producer Shasta Darlington, who has all the latest details -- Shasta.

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN PRODUCER: Thanks, Paula. That's right. There was a new statement this evening, supposedly written by Fidel Castro, read on national television, in which he says that he's in stable condition, but please not to ask for more details, that his health is a state secret. And that when the time is right, he will let us know what's going on. That he appreciates all the confidence and the love that the Cuban people are showing in him. And when the time comes, he'll let us know how things stand.

But it's the first time in 47 years that Cubans have woken up without Fidel Castro in power. So it's been a big day here, as we'll tell you about it in this story that we have.


DARLINGTON (voice-over): For nearly five decades, Cubans have gotten used to seeing their leader everywhere -- at rallies, at cultural events, on television. But on Tuesday, Fidel Castro was nowhere to be seen, not even when the presidential secretary took to the airwaves reading a letter from Castro explaining he had to undergo intestinal surgery.

"The operation obligates me to take several weeks of rest," the secretary read.

Less than two weeks shy of his 80th birthday, Castro went under the knife, and shocked the nation by temporarily handing power over to his younger brother, 75-year-old Raul.

"I'm a little nervous, because he has reached a certain age. Health deteriorates a lot," says Sali Aldira (ph). But while we have confidence in the doctors of our country so that Fidel can be reestablished in power soon.

By day's end, people remained optimistic.

"We are here for no other reason than to support Fidel," says one Havana resident.

Down the street, a large sign with "we are doing well" can be seen.

"He has been a father for the people," Pedro Marketi (ph) says, "and I think that, yes, the people are very pained by his ill health."

Castro is the only leader many Cubans have ever known. The government estimates 70 percent of the population here was born after he took over in 1959. And this is the first time since then that he has relinquished power.

In Havana, residents tried to go about their daily routines, working, playing. Now, all eyes are on the younger Castro. Raul may lack Fidel's charisma, but he is known to have a more common appeal. Those who know him well say he enjoys parties and a good joke.

After the Soviet Union fell, leaving Cuba on the brink of bankruptcy, it was Raul Castro who declared beans were more important than bullets for the survival of the revolution. Some Cubans fear it may mean the beginning of the end for a regime that has lasted through 10 U.S. presidencies. Others believe in the sentiment of this sign which reads simply, "viva Fidel, 80 more."


DARLINGTON: And those people will certainly be glad to have heard from Fidel Castro this evening, even if it was in a statement, in which he said he was feeling just fine, Paula.

ZAHN: Shasta Darlington, thanks so much. Still a lot of questions, unanswered ones, as we all try to figure this out.

Ninety miles, meanwhile, to the north, in Miami, they are still dancing in the streets, not showing the kind of love that Castro was thanking some of his folks in that statement that we just heard Shasta read, but thousands of Cuban exiles joyous at even the possibility that the Castro era could be over.

Ed Lavandera reports from the city's Little Havana neighborhood.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The dominoes are flying fast and furious. There's excitement in the air. Cuban exiles are overwhelmed with the sense of possibility that Fidel Castro is near death. And Mario Lozada says, if Castro dies, he will be the first in line to go home to an island he last saw in 1960.

He says, "seriously, we're so happy. Let's see if we can finally get a chance to go back home."

At this domino park in Little Havana in Miami, these Cuban exiles like to joke that they've spent the last 47 years playing dominoes waiting for the bearded one to die. The feelings of hatred fro Fidel Castro run deep here. When you ask them what they'd like to see happen to the Cuban dictator, this gesture says it all.

Even politicians don't sound like politicians when it comes to Castro.

REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (R), FLORIDA: What needs to happen is that decrepit, old, senile terrorist thug has to be moved aside. And I think all of us know that that day is coming, and it's coming soon.

LAVANDERA: Hardly the kind of condolences an ailing government leader normally receives. But then again, Fidel Castro is hardly a sentimental figure in South Florida.

Enrique Rodriguez (ph) won't let himself get excited about the news of Castro's failing health. He says he's been fooled by the communist leader too often.

He says angrily, "Fidel should never have been born. It's not his mother's fault. He should never have been born. He's an assassin."


LAVANDERA: Paula, again, this is the scene on Daio Ocho (ph) Eighth Street in the heart of Little Havana in the Little Havana section of Miami. All of this excitement for just the news that Fidel Castro is ill and recovering from surgery. Imagine what this street will look like when he actually dies -- Paula.

ZAHN: Ed, we won't be able to hear you when that happens. Thank you for showing us what is going on there down in Little Havana, even though we have such little information coming out of Cuba tonight.

Meantime, we're going to take a quick biz break. Stocks were down as the Dow fell nearly 60 points, the Nasdaq 29, the S&P lost almost 6. GM sales fell nearly 20 percent in July. Ford and Chrysler fared even worse since high gas prices cut into truck sales, while Toyota sales surged.

In Washington, the Senate votes to open more than 8 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling. The House passed its own version in June.

Speaks of gas, we are going to take a look at some gas prices now in our "Crude Awakenings." The states with the highest prices in red, the lowest gas prices in green. And the average today for unleaded regular, $2.99 a gallon. That's down a penny from the record high. And everybody is hoping maybe the beginning of a downward trend. Let's see.

The situation very fluid in the Middle East tonight. Next in our top story coverage, a live update from the fighting along the Israeli- Lebanese border, and now deep inside Lebanon, not too far from the Syrian border.


ZAHN: More now of our breaking news coverage. Our top story coverage of the crisis in the Middle East. As you know, Israeli troops are reported to be moving into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Let's go straight back to John Roberts along the Israeli-Lebanese border for more information, since precious little information has come through from the Israelis themselves. What have you found out, John?

ROBERTS: Yes, very precious little information here from the Israeli side of the border, Paula. Typically, they don't comment on ongoing operations unless they're very obvious, such as, you know, an attack from a border town on another border town in Lebanon, one that we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears.

But here's what we understand is going on, according to Lebanese officials and some Hezbollah officials.

According to officials in Lebanon, airborne forces of the Israeli military went into Baalbeck, which is that ancient town in the northern end of the Bekaa Valley, very close to the border with Syria, and are operating in a hospital. We heard sources say that the Israelis went into the hospital, were asking people for identification, checking out the IDs of people. We also understand, again from Lebanese sources, that there were firefights that are taking place. Hezbollah claims to have the Israeli forces bottled up inside of the hospital.

There are also other reports coming out about the nature of the engagement, but nothing that we can confirm, so we are not even going to report on that. We hope to get some more confirmation in the coming hours from the Israeli Defense Forces.

Now, in terms of what's happening along the border here, Aid Al- Shahab (ph) is the center of the action right now. That's a town on the Lebanese border, not far from Shatula (ph), which is the area where those two Israeli military members, those two soldiers were kidnapped from, the incident that touched off this conflict. And there are also a lot of other engagements going on in many other parts of Lebanon as they prepare for this major ground operation, which appears to the imminent if not in the next 24 hours, at least the next 48 -- Paula.

ZAHN: We're counting on you to be our eyes and ears. John Roberts, thanks.

Coming up next, a top story in Hollywood tonight, actor Mel Gibson -- yes, he's still apologizing. How sorry does he have to be to save his career?


ZAHN: Well, tonight, the saga and Mel Gibson's drunken rage goes on. Here's Brooke Anderson.


POUNEH NASSERI, WITNESSED GIBSON: Mel Gibson was there and he was drunk, walking around, talking to everybody, and just having fun.

BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A witness who saw Mel Gibson the night of his DUI arrest is talking exclusively to CNN about what she said she saw.

NASSERI: He was talking to a group of my friends. And you know, he stood and said hi to each one of us. And you know, smiling, talking. He wasn't out of control, but he was drunk happy.

ANDERSON: This as Gibson issues another apology, for the first time specifically admitting he made anti-Semitic comments to a sheriff's deputy after he was pulled over.

NASSERI: I was there for my friend's birthday.

ANDERSON: Pouneh Nasseri was in Malibu's Moonshadows restaurant, where Gibson appeared Thursday night. Photos have surfaced, showing him reveling with a variety of patrons, at times toting what appears to be a beer bottle. NASSERI: He had a drink in his hand. Seemed a little drunk. I was surprised at why wouldn't someone like that hire a driver to come pick him up.

ANDERSON: Gibson was later arrested along the Pacific Coast highway, and a breathalyzer test showed he had a blood alcohol level of .12, above the California legal limit of .08. In his statement today, Gibson again apologized for his drunken display.

He said -- quote, "There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said." Gibson added, "Please note from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot."

The new statement eased but did not silence the criticism against Gibson.

JERRY RUBIN, PEACE ACTIVIST: No, it's not acceptable. I was very disappointed in Mel Gibson. When he was inebriated, I guess his true sentiments really came out.

ANDERSON (on camera): Gibson isn't the only one suffering a lingering hangover from this incident. This has turned into a huge headache for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as well. A department watchdog group is looking into accusations that authorities tried to cover up Gibson's inflammatory comments in the initial reports detailing Gibson's arrest.

MICHAEL GENNACO, OFFICE OF INDEPENDENT REVIEW: There was a clear violation of policy, and the answer is -- I don't know the answer.

ANDERSON (voice-over): The sheriff's department is saying there was no cover-up.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, some in the business, including one prominent agent, are calling for Gibson to be shunned. ABC announced it is canceling plans for a Holocaust-themed mini series which Gibson's company was going to produce, but the network said the decision was unrelated to Gibson's arrest.

And ABC's parent company, Disney, reaffirmed plans to release the director's upcoming film, "Apocalypto," in December.

As for Gibson, he said in a statement he's not concentrating on professional matters while he continues a program of recovery. He said his thoughts have turned instead to recognizing the consequences that hurtful words can have.

Brooke Anderson, CNN, Los Angeles.


ZAHN: And that wraps it up for all of us here tonight. We appreciate your joining us. We'll be back same time, same place tomorrow night. We will keep our eye on the Middle East, and of course, Cuba, where there are a lot of unanswered questions about just what the dictator's status is tonight.

Again, thanks for dropping by. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next.


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