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Interview With New York Congressman Peter King; ISIS Threatens Military Families; Ted Cruz Running for President. Aired 18-18:30p ET

Aired March 23, 2015 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:02] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Terrorist hit list. What are the feds going to do to protect military families threatened in the name of is? Dozens of Americans may be in danger right now.

Day in court. An African-American honor student is ready to make a plea after his bloody arrest outside a bar. We have new details about what happened that night.

And campaign kickoff. Republican Senator Ted Cruz jumps into the presidential race with a fiery speech and a prayer. Will being first make a difference?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Breaking now, the Obama White House is warning about a very dangerous situation on the front lines against terror that's even more dangerous now that the last U.S. and British troops have been forced to evacuate.

We're monitoring the spreading violence, the rebellion in Yemen and the power struggle by terror groups. They are thriving on the chaos and they're plotting new attacks just days after ISIS claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Yemen's capital.

Peter King is standing by. He is a leading member of the Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees.

Our correspondents and analysts, they're covering all the news that is breaking right now.

First, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, for the very latest -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, U.S. and British commanders secretly ordered out of Yemen over the weekend, now another country where the U.S. is gone and has no influence.


STARR (voice-over): Yemen now on the brink of civil war. Amid the rising unrest, the United Nations warning the worst may be to come as groups vie for power.

JAMAL BENOMAR, U.N. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR YEMEN: Unless a solution can be found in the coming days, the country will slide into further violent conflict and fragmentation.

STARR: A U.S. official tells CNN al Qaeda fighters, which have vowed to attack the U.S., are now moving quickly to increase recruiting and continue plotting attacks.

But the U.S. just became essentially blind on the ground. More than 100 U.S. military commandos like these who had been tracking al Qaeda, known as AQAP, secretly ordered out of the country by the Pentagon over the weekend. The special operations forces were evacuated by military aircraft and transported across the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti. Fighter jets patrolled overhead, while emergency response helicopters were stationed nearby.

SETH JONES, SENIOR POLITICAL SCIENTIST, RAND CORPORATION: One of the organizations that has been most interested and capable of conducting strikes in the U.S. homeland, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has increased its control of territory.

STARR: The remaining U.S. tools? Drone strikes and monitoring cell phones and social media.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is true that that coordination would be more effective if there were U.S. personnel in the country.

STARR: The number one U.S. target, Ibrahim al-Asiri, al Qaeda's master bomb-maker. Al-Asiri knows how to make bombs with difficult- to-detect explosives, a major threat to aviation. He was tied to the so-called underwear bomb attack in 2009.

The newest threat, the ISIS branch in Yemen which claimed responsibility for these mosque attacks, killing and injuring hundreds, their popularity growing.

MOHAMMED ALBASHA, SPOKESMAN, YEMENI EMBASSY TO THE UNITED STATES: They are promoting themselves as ISIS. It's the rebranding of a new militant group. They are understanding that we -- they initially started recruiting from within AQAP ranks, but now they are expanding and trying to recruit within the tribal areas.

STARR: All of this leaving the U.S. at risk.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: We will have no intelligence footprint or capabilities to monitor what AQAP and ISIS and the Shia militants are doing in the region, and without -- good intelligence stops plots against the homeland.


STARR: And intelligence sources tell me tonight that months ago they had warned the administration, they insist, that the Houthi rebel movement was challenging the government in Yemen, but the government rapidly fell, literally disintegrated, and in the last several weeks the chaos has only grown worse as all these groups fight each other. AQAP, that al Qaeda group in Yemen, may be beefing up its capabilities right now -- Wolf. BLITZER: I'm sure they are, Barbara. Thank you.

The president of Afghanistan is here in the United States for talks with President Obama tomorrow. He is warning that ISIS terrorists are targeting his country. CNN has new evidence of ISIS recruiting inside Afghanistan in this report from our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Where there has long been faith and war in Afghanistan's serene hills, a new and modern plague has now come. You're seeing rare pictures filmed by our cameraman of what we are told is an ISIS recruitment session in Afghanistan.

[18:05:09] "Brothers, I'm here to tell you," the recruiter says, "about the Mujahadeen in Syria." After a decade of war, the Taliban is strong but fractured and the U.S. is leaving. The U.N. warns ISIS is getting a foothold in Afghanistan and this may be how.

This Afghan says he's come back from fighting in northern Syria and is one of five recruiters. His pitch is simple, come fight true jihad for ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for a $500 wage. Some listeners are driven.

"My aim is to fight infidels," one says, "in Syria or, if they ask me to, in Afghanistan, I will."

Others unsure and just poor.

"I definitely need the money, but will stay here and hope peace comes," one adds.

There's a bit of theater here. ISIS application forms for them to complete on camera, but also a clear message to angry young Afghans disillusioned with the Taliban's wars. There's now an even more ruthless choice you can make -- ISIS.

Nick Paton Walsh, Kabul.


BLITZER: Tonight, we also have new information about a terrorist hit list that is linked to ISIS targeting about 100 members of the U.S. military and their familiars.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is looking into this story for us.

It's very disturbing. What are you learning, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Very disturbing, officials taking it very seriously, Wolf. The FBI and the Department of Defense are investigating. And law enforcement sources tell CNN the real concern here is

that a lone wolf sympathetic to ISIS could target these service members listed. We're learning from a law enforcement official that a few of the individuals in this group behind the threat, Islamic State Hacking Division, are ISIS affiliates who the FBI has been tracking online.

And it appears, Wolf, this group may have cherry-picked some of the service members in the list because of their involvement with the U.S. air campaign in Syria and Iraq. And among the personal information posted on this hit list over the weekend, pictures, home addresses and phone numbers of high-ranking military officials, commanders, captains and major generals, in total, about 100 members of the U.S. military.

The group is calling on ISIS sympathizers to -- quote -- "kill the service members in their own land, behead them in their own homes, stab them to death as they walk their streets thinking they are safe." The Pentagon telling CNN all the service members are being notified, though there's no evidence of an imminent threat of an attack or a data breach in this case, Wolf.

It appears the group was able to pull information publicly and information -- available information about the service members online through social media.

BLITZER: Yes, they and their family members must be terrified right now.


BLITZER: Pamela, thanks very much.

Let's get some analysis of what's going on, some more information.

Joining us, a leading member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, Congressman Peter King of New York.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

Have you been briefed on the so-called ISIS hit list, the targeting of these 100 members of the U.S. military for not only attack, but beheadings, death?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Wolf, not necessarily on this particular one.

And I'm not sure if this is entirely new. But for the last six months, we have been briefed on how ISIS is assembling names, addresses, phone numbers, basically using, as Pamela Brown said, social media, people on Facebook that will say their husband or their wife is in Afghanistan or they are coming home soon or whatever, and then just newspaper reports about veterans returning home or someone being wounded. They can -- so, really from really open source and from the

Internet, basically, ISIS has been able to track this down. And, again, I don't think we have to be too concerned right now about an organized ISIS force in this country carrying out attacks. My concern is, I believe, what the Justice Department believes, is that we're talking about lone wolves.

For instance, what we saw back in Queens, back in October, where we had the ISIS supporter, the ISIS sympathizer who was radicalized over the Internet using the hatchet attack on the two police officers, or what we saw up in Canada, when the Canadian Parliament was attacked.

So, I think what ISIS is doing here is appealing to supporters, fringe supporters, people on the fringes of society who will act out. But, again, we have to be looking for actual ISIS cells. But I think the immediate threat would come from someone who is a deranged person or a lone wolf who is influenced by ISIS. So, it's a real concern.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

And what this ISIS so-called Hacking Division, what they said is to their supporters, sympathizers here in the United States, if you can't come fight with us here in Iraq or Syria or Yemen or Libya or whatever, stay where you are, but here is a list of U.S. military personnel. Here are their names, their addresses, their pictures. Go ahead and behead them, kill them if you can.

Here is the question. Should these people be getting special protection?

[18:10:04] KING: I believe, yes. And they probably are in their local communities. The answer is, yes, they should be.

There should definitely be protection for anyone whose name is there and, quite frankly, anyone not community who is known to be a military person, a person whose name has appeared, even if it's not on this list. I would hope that the local police in conjunction with the military would be providing some level of security for them.

Certainly, anyone whose name is there should be getting security. I would be very surprised if they're not, if they don't have some form of security detail on them.

BLITZER: I agree with you, although we had heard earlier today, Congressman -- and I'm sure I will check this out -- that, as of now, there has been no decision to actually provide them with additional security, post guards, for example, outside their homes or move them to other locations.

But it's obviously a very worrisome development.


KING: Just, again, from my experience in New York, whenever something like this happens, certainly, the local police will provide a level of security for anyone whose name has appeared or anyone who could be targeted by a terrorist.

BLITZER: Yes, but that may be in New York, but it's not necessarily throughout the entire country, where there may be more limited resources.


KING: And I'm saying it should be, yes.

BLITZER: But I agree with you, because I'm sure there are family members, if they see their names popping up and their pictures, their addresses and all, they must be terrified. Don't you agree?

KING: I certainly would. Certainly am.

And, again, we're thinking not just of the personnel themselves, but their spouses, their kids, their neighbors, any -- if ISIS could attack anyone that has even a tangential connection to one of these military people, that's a psychological victory for ISIS and would have a devastating impact on the American people.

BLITZER: Have you learned for sure that this is really ISIS doing this or somebody else who is pretending to be ISIS just to instill fear?

KING: I'm not certain on this. I have not been briefed on this particular listing.

But we do know that ISIS and al Qaeda itself -- I should say affiliates are monitoring names of military personnel and going back as far as six months ago, not just here in this country, but also in Europe. The Pentagon has been urging the American military to have as small a footprint as possible as far as social media is concerned, because anything, even the most harmless picture, Instagram, whatever about a personnel themselves or their family members or their friends, relatives, whatever, that could end up making them a target for ISIS or al Qaeda or any of this really alphabet soup of groups that are out there.

BLITZER: I'm sure a lot of military families right now they are cutting back on their social media, for good reason.

KING: Yes.

BLITZER: Congressman, I want to you stand by. We have new information coming in about what ISIS, al Qaeda, these Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis in Yemen are doing now that the U.S. has not only evacuated the embassy, but pulled out all U.S. special operations forces.

More with Congressman Peter King right after this.


[18:17:20] BLITZER: We're back with Republican Congressman Peter King. We are talking about ISIS and other terrorist groups, the growing danger in Yemen after the evacuation of all U.S. and British military forces.

Congressman, less than a year ago, President Obama cited Yemen and Somalia, for that matter, as a place where U.S. counterterrorism strategy was working. You are a member of the Intelligence Committee. Were you getting good intelligence at that time as far as Yemen specifically was concerned? Because now it's clearly a disaster.

KING: Yes, Wolf, when the president said that either last August or September, when he made his first speech really on ISIS, we couldn't believe what he was saying. There was absolutely no evidence at all that Yemen was working.

The reports were getting worse by the day. So I have no idea why the president said that. It was wrong to say it, not just because he was factually wrong, but that causes a loss of confidence by our allies in the region and it encourages our enemy to see the president being so wrong on such a basic issue.

BLITZER: What you are suggesting, Congressman, is that there wasn't an intelligence community failure. They foresaw what was going on in Yemen, but there was a failure on the part of the president and his top national security advisers who prepared those remarks?

KING: Yes. I don't know if we were as positive that the Houthis would be as dangerous as they turned out to be.

But even without them, the situation in Yemen was crumbling by the day. It was just al Qaeda, who was becoming more and more powerful. The government was becoming more and more weak. The embassy was basically in a very dangerous position. There was no way in the world that anyone could say that the system was working or that his policy was working in Yemen. It was clearly a failure as far back as last August or September. It has gotten worse since then.

But even at that time, there was absolutely no basis for him saying what he did.

BLITZER: Congressman, you are one of 367 House members, Republicans and Democrats, who signed a letter to the president today citing grave concerns over the Iran nuclear negotiations. In the letter, it says -- what, it says Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb.

What specifically are you most concerned about right now? Because it looks like they may be on the verge of a deal, a deal that would eventually be approved by the U.N. Security Council.

KING: What I'm concerned about is, in effect, this disagreement, at least the way it's being reported, would mean locking in place a potential Iranian nuclear program, because it has a 10-year limit.

And it allows Iran to go ahead with measures, with programs which, at the end of that 10 years, or even before that, if they decide to pull out, they would have the capacity within a very short period of time to have a nuclear weapon. In effect, what we are doing, what the president seems to be doing is giving them this almost guarantee that within nine or 10 years if they wish they can pull out, or even before then, they are still going to go ahead with production, which really to me can only lead toward a nuclear weapon.

[18:20:17] And so I don't see the plus in this at all. And it in effect has given almost immunity to Iran. And that's why you find such a large number -- this is not partisan, an overwhelming number of Democrats and Republicans, in addition, of course, to the Israeli government, but right here in the U.S. and the U.S. Congress, the House and the Senate, you will find overwhelming concern about this agreement.

BLITZER: I want to get your reaction to your fellow Republican Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, announcing today his candidacy for president of the United States. You put out a statement suggesting you likened him to, what, a carnival barker. What did you mean by that?

KING: What I mean by that is that we have very, very complex issues facing the country today. And he goes out of his way to oversimplify.

For instance, to say that Obamacare -- we could end Obamacare, in effect, by not funding it and shutting down the government is absolutely wrong. That's a wrong signal to send. We need intelligent debate in this country.

Now, Ted Cruz may be an intelligent person, but he doesn't carry out an intelligent debate. He oversimplifies. He exaggerates. And he basically led the Republican Party over the cliff in the fall of 2013. He has shown no qualifications, no legislation being passed, doesn't provide leadership. And he has no real experience. So, to me, he is just a guy with a big mouth and no results.

BLITZER: Would you support him if he were the GOP nominee?

KING: I just hope that day never comes. I will jump off that bridge when we come to it.

BLITZER: But you're leaving open that possibility after you said what you said? Is that what you're saying?

KING: No, well, it would be very difficult. Again, maybe he can go on the road to Damascus. He can have a complete conversion. But the way it is right now, it would be very difficult to support Ted Cruz.

BLITZER: When are you going to announce whether or not you are running for president?

KING: I'm still looking. I will be in New Hampshire next week. I will be up there in Nashua, I believe, on April 16 and 17.

And, again, I'm not kidding myself. It's not going to be easy. But if the opening is there -- and if not, I will just take advantage of this country to appeal to me the realistic wing of the party, the pro-defense, Ronald Reagan wing of the Republican Party, the true conservatives, not the counterfeit conservatives like Ted Cruz, to prevent people like Cruz and Rand Paul from hijacking the nomination.

BLITZER: You don't like Rand Paul either; is that right?

KING: Oh, his views. I understand personally he's a very nice guy. But his views are so isolationist and the world we face today, I think it would be taking us back to the 1930s.

BLITZER: He calls himself a non-interventionist, not an isolationist. Do you buy that?

KING: No. I call him an isolationist. His views would basically remove the U.S. from having a real role to play in the world.

And his mind-set, when you look at things he has said over the years, in infect blaming the United States for the problems around the world, somehow that we -- it's our fault, to me, that's a bad mind-set for the commander in chief of the United States to be going into office with.

BLITZER: Any of those fellow Republican potential candidates likable to you? You like any of them?

KING: Oh, sure. Listen, I'm not that tough a guy to get along with.

I think Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, they all -- both of them certainly show ability. John Kasich -- I served in the House with John Kasich. No, we have a lot of talent out there. I just don't see Ted Cruz and Rand Paul being part of that talent pool.

BLITZER: Peter King, the congressman from New York, thanks very much for joining us.

KING: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You will let us know when you make that decision. We will of course want to cover that.


KING: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, new information about the Virginia alcohol agents involved in the controversial arrest of an African-American student leader at UVA, the University of Virginia -- what one witness now says he saw happen.


[18:28:13] BLITZER: There's breaking news tonight.

CNN has now confirmed that an African-American University of Virginia honor student plans to enter a plea of not guilty after his bloody arrest outside a pub last week. Martese Johnson is due in court on Thursday. We're also learning that the four special alcohol agents in Charlottesville, Virginia, are all white. Three of them were involved in Johnson's arrest. But their boss is black.

Let's bring in our CNN anchor Don Lemon. He has been covering the story. Also joining us, our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes and our legal analyst Sunny Hostin.

Sunny, he's going to enter a not guilty plea. Do you think it's possible they just drop the charges, given all the commotion right now, what was a relatively minor infraction, if there was any infraction at all? Why not simply drop the charges?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think that makes a lot of sense. I wonder if that will happen on Thursday. I'm

sure the prosecutors are looking at this. I think what's really interesting is that these officers claim that they stopped him for having a fake I.D. If you look at the charges, he certainly wasn't charged with having a fake I.D. That's the first thing. I think the other thing that prosecutors will look at, Wolf, is the fact that these are very -- what he was charged with, which I think is public -- or swearing and intoxication in public, the vice president of UVA says that the Breathalyzer test showed that he wasn't intoxicated.

And then, finally, I think that the prosecutors are certainly going to have to look at the fact that these are low-level misdemeanors, if anything. And under the Virginia criminal code, they don't even require arrest.

And so when you sort of look at that and you look at these pictures that we're showing, if I were the prosecutor handling this case, this would be an open-and-shut one. And it is certainly one that I would not prosecute.

BLITZER: Especially because the owner of that pub has now said publicly that Johnson was, what, polite and cordial when he was actually turned away from that pub.

Don, I know you've been working your sources over there at the University of Virginia, spoken to people close to Martese Johnson. Any update, first of all, on his condition? Because you broke the news Friday night that some of his family members were concerned. They took him to the -- the little medical facility there, because he seemed to be -- had some swelling in his head.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: The only thing that they said, Wolf, you're exactly right. Sources close to the family and close to Martese are only saying to me at this point, they were concerned about Thursday, when we reported that. And now they're saying he is in good health. The quote is "in good health" when I asked him.

Also, I have some new information that I need to report to you about the pub owner and about the plea that he's going to enter on Thursday. Today, Martese and his representatives both met with UVA deans and with the owner of Trinity Pub. And the owner of Trinity Pub says he's sorry for what happened to Martese. It's important to know that Martese does not blame the pub for anything. He says the pub did not do anything wrong. As a matter of fact, the pub owner, the co-owner who stopped him

on that evening is also from the South Side of Chicago. That's where Martese is from. Martese went to McKinley Academy on the South Side of Chicago. Both men are from there. So when he asked him for his ZIP code, and he didn't know it, the man was familiar with it. And so that sort of though made him think twice, wondering why he didn't know it.

That owner's name is Kevin Badke. He's a co-pub owner. Again, also from the South Side of Chicago. He said that Martese was not belligerent nor intoxicated that night, that they had extra scrutiny put on them, because they were an Irish establishment.

And the ABC, the Alcohol Control Board [SIC] was checking all of the -- mostly Irish establishments, because it was St. Patty's Day. He says there was no racial profiling involved. He said his head of security is African-American. He's had five heads of security since he's been in business. Three of them have been black. He's never gotten physical, as far as stopping someone. He's seen them arrest people. It's never been that physical before. And he said no one deserves the treatment that Johnson got. He did not deserve that.

BLITZER: He's a young kid grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Obviously, just had a single mother. Came to the University of Virginia, honor student. What do you think, Tom? Should they just drop these charges and move on?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think even if they should drop them, they probably won't because they'll be afraid that that's a complete admission that the entire arrest was unjustified, which it may have been. We just don't know yet what occurred.

Obviously, when he's dealing with the pub staff, you know, there's no -- they have no chance of taking him into custody. But with the police, we don't know what happened.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We'll stay on top of this story.

An important note to our viewers: Don will be back later tonight, 10 p.m. Eastern, "CNN TONIGHT." Much more on this and all the day's important news. Guys, we'll see you later.

Just ahead, Israel's leader, the prime minister, has now formally publically apologized to Israeli Arab voters for his harsh election rhetoric. The Obama administration is keeping the pressure on Netanyahu, especially for his flip-flop comments about a two-state solution. Can the peace process be revived?

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, he's walking into the situation room right now. Saeb Erekat, welcome to Washington. We've got lots to discuss right after this.


BLITZER: New tonight, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is publicly apologizing for his election day rallying cry to supporters, warning that Arab citizens of Israel would be voting in droves, his words. Netanyahu now is under a lot of fire for the political rhetoric that helped him win that re-election.

President Obama is one of his toughest critics, as U.S.-Israeli relations have taken a turn, a serious turn for the worse.

Let's go to our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott. She's joining us live from Jerusalem with more. What's been the reaction so far to the apology today to Israel's Arab citizens for what he said on election day?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today with a group of minorities -- and I'll note that there was only one Arab among them, all Likud supporters -- the prime minister said that he was sorry if what he said offended the Arabs. He says he sees himself as the prime minister of all Israelis.

But tonight the Arabs who did very well in the recent election. Now the third largest block in the Knesset are saying, "Listen, it's not just this one statement." They feel over the last six years, this prime minister has had policies and legislation that are exclusionary and discriminatory. Wolf, 1.6 million Israeli citizens of Arab decent feel that they're second-class citizens. And they were very hurt by these comments. But the larger issue of feeling marginalized in society is a problem, Wolf.

BLITZER: He also is trying to walk away from those comments he made in the final days of the campaign, saying he didn't think a Palestinian state on his watch was ever going to happen. He now insists he does support a two-state solution. The White House is not necessarily buying it, is it?

LABOTT: No, not impressed, Wolf. Officials are saying that you can't just walk back the statement and feel that the U.S. and Israel, after being on the same page for six years about working towards a two-state solution, are now on the same page. Take a listen to the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, speaking today to the pro-Israel group, J Street.


DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Such contradictory comments called into question his commitment to a two-state solution, as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established. We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made.


LABOTT: Wolf, tonight officials are telling me that it's going to take time, and it's going to take actions, not words, for the U.S. to rebuild that trust and credibility. The prime minister -- you've already heard the president say that the U.S. may need to reassess its relationship with Israel as far as the peace process going forward. BLITZER: All right. Elise in Jerusalem, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on what's going on. Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: First of all, do you accept -- you're not an Israeli citizen. But do you accept the apology, the public apology that Prime Minister Netanyahu made today to Israel's Arabs about those remarks he made on election day, when he urged his supporters, "Go out and vote, because the Arabs are voting in droves"?

EREKAT: No. No, because you could differ; you could have substantive differences. But imagine, Wolf, if someone is running an election in France and he would tell the people on TV, "Jews are voting (ph)." Or in America somebody would say blacks are voting (ph). This is horrible. This is horrible.

BLITZER: Now he's apologized.

EREKAT: I think it's up to the Israeli Arabs to say their words. I think this is about communication (ph); it's about a culture. And this was very, very, very wrong.

BLITZER: When the -- when the prime minister said the day or two after the election his policy hasn't changed, he still supports a two- state solution, two states, Israel living alongside a new state of Palestine, do you accept that?

EREKAT: No. Same thing, Wolf. Prime Minister Netanyahu, we engaged him, gave him so many chance.

I don't believe there has been anyone more sincere for the peace process more than President Obama and John Kerry. I think these two gentlemen have invested everything humanly possible to allow us and the Israelis to achieve an agreement.

And he will tell everyone, you understand, that "Wolf, I will make it. I will make it." But then the deeds are turned into settlements, dictation and anything that would undermine the two-state solution.

Now Mr. Netanyahu needs to put his money where his mouth is. If he's really serious about the two-state solution, he needs to stop settlement, and he needs to tell those people that we must organize Palestine on the 1967 lines to live side by side with Palestine.

BLITZER: Listen to Denis McDonough. You were there at J Street yourself earlier today. This is what he also said today. I'll play a clip. This is the White House chief of staff.


MCDONOUGH: No nation has done more to stand with Israel and the world, including at the United Nations, than the United States. And so as difficult as it is, the United States will never stop working for a two-state solution and a lasting peace that Israelis and Palestinians so richly deserve.


BLITZER: You agree with him on that? You want a two-state solution. I know you're meeting with officials from the White House and State Department. How do you revive this peace process now in the aftermath of Netanyahu's re-election?

EREKAT: You know, someone -- the prime minister of Israel tells me that a Palestinian state establishment is not on my watch, what option does he have?

BLITZER: Now he says he does want a two-state solution.

EREKAT: Yes, but in actuality, he has done nothing but undermine the two-state solution. He has increased settlement activity since 2009 now by 40 percent, more than any time before.

BLITZER: But you know he blames the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, for forging this alliance with Hamas in Gaza, which even the State Department considers a terrorist organization, committed to Israel's destruction.

EREKAT: Wolf, you know that we have a national government formed with agreement with Hamas. But the political program of the government is two states. The state of Palestine to live state by side, the state of Israel, peace and security. And there is not a single (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

BLITZER: Netanyahu says you must end that relationship with Hamas in order to revive the negotiations for a two-state solution. You're smiling, but your reaction is?

EREKAT: Hamas is a political problem. It's my problem. I know that once a Palestinian state is established, we must have one authority and the rule of law.

But Wolf, the other thing Mr. Netanyahu is doing now, he is withholding our money. You know, we're not a state. Israel collects our taxes and our revenues for us, $150 million a month. This is the fourth month they don't transfer our money. They pirated our money. Our hospitals are about to collapse. We're not saying salaries.

And then if Mr. Netanyahu is seeking the end of the Palestinian Authority, we may soon call upon him to assume the responsibility of...

BLITZER: They say you must first break your ties with Hamas.

EREKAT: Hamas is a Palestinian political party. He has to tell me that once we have a Palestinian state, we have one authority, one (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and the rule of law. And then when I differ with Hamas, I'm telling Hamas, we result to ballots and not bullets. It's my problem. I know we have a problem there. We know we have division. We need to reconcile and we need to bring Gaza back to the Palestinians.

BLITZER: Is there any hope at all to revive this peace process?

ERAKAT: Yes. Look, if not now in ten years, there's no option for Palestinians and Israelis other than a two-state solution.

BLITZER: But the final two years of the Obama administration, is there any hope something can be resolved?

ERAKAT: Yes, I think it's possible. I think it's doable. I think it's a need. It's doable. It's a must. And it's the most cardinal interest for Palestinians and Israelis.

I did not wake up in the morning, and not feel my conscience aching for the Israelis or the rest. I'm doing it for myself, my children, my grandchildren. It's the same thing to them. There is no option for Palestinians and Israelis other than a state of Palestine to live side by side with a state of Israel and peace and security of the 1967 lines. I hope and pray that this leader of Israel, and we respect the democratic choice (ph) of Israelis, will stand tall and tell his people, yes, we need to recognize a state of Palestine and we need to stop settlement activity.

BLITZER: Are they going to -- is the Obama administration going to try to revive the peace process, do you think? Or are they over it?

ERAKAT: No, I think they will. I think Mr. Denis McDonough said today, that they will never give up. I really believe that. And I believe that President Obama --

BLITZER: And you believe that?

ERAKAT: I believe President Obama, I believe Secretary Kerry. And, look, at the end of the day, they may do whatever things to help Palestinians and Israelis. But decisions cannot be made by Obama or Kerry. Decisions are required from us and Israelis.

BLITZER: Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, you have been working this for a long time. Good luck to you. Good luck to the Israelis.

Let's hope the two-state solution can at the end of the day be achieved. Appreciate it very much.

ERAKAT: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead: Senator Ted Cruz play to a conservative crowd, but not everyone bought his message as he became the first major presidential candidate to announce his campaign.


[18:51:36] BLITZER: The 2016 presidential race has its first official candidate. That would be Republican senator, conservative firebrand, Ted Cruz. He has a jump on the competition right now, but will that help him as the campaign unfolds?

Our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us live from Lynchburg, Virginia, where Cruz made his big announcement.

Jeff, how did it go?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Senator Cruz made clear he's going to run hard against the party establishment. For now, it's not a question of whether he wins, but how far he's going to fall the conversation to the right.


ZELENY (voice-over): Senator Ted Cruz jump-started the 2016 presidential race, officially making his lofty ambitions known.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America, and that is why today, I am announcing that I am running for president of the United States.

ZELENY: There was no hometown rally for this Texas senator. He selected the Virginia campus of Liberty University. With an arena packed of 10,000 evangelical students.

He made clear that "liberty" would be the soundtrack of his campaign, saying the word more than 10 times.

CRUZ: How fragile liberty is.

An assault on our religious liberty.

We will stand for liberty.

ZELENY: Cruz made this announcement on the fifth anniversary of the signing of Obamacare, a fitting date for a freshman senator who rose to the national spotlight with his role in the 2013 government shutdown. He made no apologies as he delivered his unabashed brand of conservatism.

CRUZ: Imagine in 2017, a new president signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare.

ZELENY: Not everyone was sold on Cruz's message. A group of Rand Paul supporters said they were being used as props, because students were required to attend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think it was right to do it at a university that is requiring a convocation attendance.

ZELENY (on camera): Whether you plan to support him or not, what did you think of his message?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As a Christian man, he's definitely a nice guy. It's just for my personal beliefs, he's a little too much of a war hog.

ZELENY (voice-over): Cruz says he's ready for the marathon ahead in a Republican field with nearly a dozen candidates.

CRUZ: If every day is like this, I'm invigorated and inspired by young people ready to turn the country around.

ZELENY: His Republican rivals plan to jump in the race next month, but today, Cruz and his family reveled in the moment. His wife Heidi is taking a leave of absence from her job at Goldman Sachs, to spend time on the campaign trail with their two young daughters.

CRUZ: I am honored to stand with each and every one of you, courageous conservatives, as we come together to reclaim the promise of America.


ZELENY: Now, Senator Cruz did not mention any of his Republican rivals by name but, make no mistake about it, he criticized Jeb Bush's two key issues: Common Core education and immigration reform. And aides to Senator Cruz tell me, he will not be shy about distinguishing from all of his rivals -- Wolf.

BLITZER: To be sure. He's not a shy guy to begin with.

All right. Jeffrey, stay with us. I want to bring in our senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, and our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Ron, he's starting off right now, according to our polls, in the low single digits, considerably behind Jeb Bush, Scott walker, even Rand Paul. He's got a major mission ahead of him.

[18:55:01] RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, he does. His challenge is that right now he's appealing to only a relative narrow bandwidth within the party, the most conservative elements, including evangelical Christians. When NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll a few weeks ago asked people in the potential Republican primary voters, would you consider voting for the various candidates, he was only at net positive two, almost as many people said they would not consider as would consider. He was fine among very conservative, weaker among somewhat conservative and way under water with those who are moderate or liberal.

They, by and large, were saying they were not looking at him. So, he either has a very narrow pathway or he's got to expand his reach.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, you wrote a very long and in-depth article about Senator Cruz last year. What's the most important thing we all need to know about him?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that he believes that Republicans who seek the center are destined for failure. He says, look at the presidential candidates who have won as Republicans, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, the first term of President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Look at the Republicans who lose. Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford. There are the ones who lose.

Now, there are other explanations as to, one, why those candidates came out the way they did, but he is someone who thinks that being a true conservative, whether it means denying climate change, overruling Obamacare, fighting immigration reform, all of that is just find because a pure message will beat a moderate message, so he says.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, you're there on the scene. How good are Cruz's chances of locking up that critically important evangelical vote in the Iowa caucuses? It's a crowded field, Huckabee, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, among others.

ZELENY: Wolf, it's a very crowded field. So, right now, they are all playing for the same slice of the audience. So, it's far too soon to lock up any of that group of the electorate. But one thing for Senator Cruz, he has been going to Iowa so often. His father, a preacher, has been spending a lot of time in Iowa.

So, he really wins over audiences there but this is the time of the year that activists like to watch the candidates, see how they grow. So, Senator Cruz will not be locking up any of these activists for possibly months to come, but it's a very crowded lane. The establishment lane actually is not as nearly crowded as the evangelical lane, if you will. He has a tough road ahead of him, no question about it.

BLITZER: I assume, Ron, his announcement will accelerate other announcements?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I'm not sure if he has enough gravitational pull. He's not big enough yet to really affect other people's time, but the natural rhythm of the calendar is pointing in that direction. We have Rand Paul coming in earlier April, as Jeff said, others later in April.

I think the bigger question about Ted Cruz is whether he affects the not timing, but whether he has a gravitational pull to affect the debate. Will he force other candidates to move to the right in a way that could affect their ability to appeal in the general election?

BLITZER: And let's just clarify one point, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal point. He was actually born in Canada, in Calgary. His mother, an American citizen, his father was from Cuba. At that point, he was not an American citizen, but he fits the definition of a natural-born American. So, he can run for president, right?

TOOBIN: Well, we think so. I don't think there's going to be any controversy about that. However, it is worth pointing out that the Supreme Court has not specifically defined what a natural-born citizen is. I don't think it's an issue. Donald Trump is engaging in one of his fictional presidential campaigns. He's apparently considering raising it. But I think that's a nonissue. Ted Cruz has a lot of problems as

a candidate. Where he is born is not one of them.

BLITZER: You think that's an issue potentially down the road? Other Republicans decide Donald Trump could make that so-called birther issue?

BROWNSTEIN: I think he's going to do a lot better before people start going down that road. I agree with Jeff. He has other problems, including what Zeleny said -- a very crowded field on the side that he's trying to play on, much less crowded in the establishment lane at the moment and that may be a problem for conservatives in general.

BLITZER: On the whole, Jeff Zeleny, you were there, 10,000 students, they were required to attend that event, but he was pretty well-received, right?

ZELENY: He was very well-received, no question about it. A lot of what he was saying was music to the ears of these young conservatives. And if Senator Cruz is able to win over these younger conservatives across the country, that could really help him.

But it looked like an Obama rally of 2007. We all spent so much time at those. It looked like that from the outside. But if you crack into the surface a little bit more, it was significantly different.

These people really don't know Ted Cruz. They are just getting to know him. So, his growth in this campaign, whether he has the capacity to grow is something that we'll be keeping an eye on.

BLITZER: Yes, Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor, says of all the students he taught at Harvard Law School, Ted Cruz was one of the five smartest students he taught there. So, we'll see what happens down the road.

Guys, thanks very much.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter, tweet me @wolfblitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNsitroom. Please be sure to join us again tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.