Opposition accuses Netanyahu of trying to bury legal woes with tunnel operation

Zionist Union MK questions timing of mission to destroy Hezbollah cross-border passages, two days after police recommended charges against PM; IDF says operation long-planned

This picture taken on December 4, 2018, from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila shows a view of Israeli machinery operating behind the border wall in Israel (R). (Ali DIA / AFP)
This picture taken on December 4, 2018, from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila shows a view of Israeli machinery operating behind the border wall in Israel (R). (Ali DIA / AFP)

Knesset member Yoel Hasson, the chairman of the opposition Zionist Union’s group of legislators, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday of orchestrating a major operation on the Lebanese border for political gain, in a bid to divert attention from police recommendations that he be indicted for bribery.

Hasson said Netanyahu was “cheapening” the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s security interests in launching Operation Northern Shield to uncover and destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels running under the border from Lebanon. He called for an urgent meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the matter.

Earlier this week, the Israel Police recommended that Netanyahu stand trial for bribery and various other offenses in the Bezeq-Walla corruption probe, known as Case 4000. The development came following a tumultuous period last month in which Education Minister Naftali Bennett threatened to topple the government if not given the post of defense minister, but then backed down after Netanyahu urged coalition partners to stay put because of ongoing security considerations — which he did not explain at the time.

“The bulldozer operation in Israeli territory leaves us no alternative but to question the timing and the presentation” of Operation Northern Shield, Hasson said.

“The presentation [of it] to the public as a military offensive to justify [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett remaining in the government, and the timing, which is meant to overshadow the police recommendations… are an insult to the residents of the north,” he added.

Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson attends a Knesset committee meeting on November 30, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hasson’s analysis of the timing was shared by some in the Iran-backed Hezbollah, with one official in the terror group telling the Lebanese al-Nahar news outlet that Netanyahu was “in crisis” and had manufactured the confrontation in order to distract from his legal and political troubles.

“Netanyahu is in a jam because of [his government’s] crisis and is tilting at windmills,” the unnamed official told the Lebanese outlet, referencing the literary character Don Quixote.

However, the IDF rejected the alleged significance of the timing, with one spokesperson saying in a briefing that the operation against the Hezbollah attack tunnels had been planned over a “very long period of time.”

“It is not something that can be done very easily and quickly,” the spokesperson said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party event in Ramat Gan, marking the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on December 2, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hours after the IDF announced the start of the operation early Tuesday, it published photographs it said were of the interior of an attack tunnel that ran for 200 meters from inside Lebanon, under the border, and some 40 meters into Israeli territory.

The army said the operation could continue for several weeks.

Sunday’s indictment recommendations against Netanyahu came after, earlier this year, police recommended that he be charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other corruption cases, designated 1000 and 2000.

In Case 1000, the so-called “gifts scandal,” Netanyahu is suspected of “systematically” demanding benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in exchange for favors.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister work to weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable press coverage from Yedioth.

The police recommendations will be passed to the attorney general, who will make the final decision on whether to indict the premier.

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