It's 'engineering activity in Israeli sovereign territory'

Opposition head accuses Netanyahu of inflating anti-tunnel operation

Livni says PM over-dramatized the engineering activity on northern border to distract from coalition woes and failed response to Gaza violence

Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni addresses the Public Forum Conference on November 15, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni addresses the Public Forum Conference on November 15, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday of over-dramatizing the IDF’s discovery of Hezbollah tunnels that infiltrated Israel from Lebanon for political gain.

Livni told the Kan public broadcaster that while she and the rest of the opposition welcomed the army’s operation to find and destroy tunnels, it “must be kept in proportion.”

“We are not now in a situation where our soldiers are behind enemy lines,” said Livni, who served as foreign minister during Israel’s 2006 war with the Hezbollah terrorist group.

“We are talking about engineering activity within the sovereign territory of the state of Israel,” she added, accusing Netanyahu of “blowing the incident out of proportion.”

Israel announced on Tuesday that it had launched Operation Northern Shield to locate and destroy Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon, apparently intended for use in cross-border attacks.

The announcement of the operation was accompanied by what looked to be a well-planned media offensive to present the army’s activities to the public, including slick propaganda videos in Hebrew and English.

IDF soldiers search for Hezbollah attack tunnels on Israeli-Lebanese border on December 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the “attack tunnels” dug by the Iran-backed terrorist militia were not yet operational.

He declined to say how many had been detected or how they would be destroyed, but stressed all activities would take place within Israeli territory.

Netanyahu, whose electoral appeal rests to a large extent on his image as the country’s “Mr. Security,” went on television on Tuesday evening to explain the tunnel threat, with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at his side.

Netanyahu is seeking to hold his governing coalition together after last month’s sudden resignation of defense minister Avigdor Liberman over a controversial Gaza ceasefire, which left him clinging to bare 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett then demanded the defense portfolio, and threatened to topple the government if not given the post. But Netanyahu kept the job for himself, and Bennett eventually backed down after the prime minister urged his coalition partners to stay put due to ongoing security considerations — which he did not explain at the time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot deliver statements to the press at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Netanyahu has also faced mounting legal woes, with police on Sunday recommending that he and his wife Sara be indicted for bribery, the third such recommendation against the premier in recent months.

The army has dismissed any suggestion of political influence in the operation, but some in the opposition, while supporting the army’s actions, have pointed to how Netanyahu handled the announcement.

Livni alleged that part of Netanyahu’s thinking was to deflect criticism by residents of southern Israel who say he has failed to quash the threat of cross-border rocket fire from terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

“Therefore he made a defensive engineering event into a dramatic military operation,” she said.

“This was done from two reasons — either the prime minister is himself panicking or he wants to sow panic to justify his actions both in delaying elections and abandoning the residents of southern Israel.”

On Tuesday, Yoel Hasson, the chairman of the Zionist Union faction, accused Netanayhu of orchestrating the IDF operation to divert attention from the police recommendations that he be indicted for bribery.

“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 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.

Israeli soldiers sit in a humvee at a security checkpoint along a road near the northern Israeli town of Metula near the border with Lebanon on December 5, 2018. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

The IDF flatly rejected any links between the timing of its announcement and the political climate. In a briefing, Conricus said the IDF operation to destroy 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,” he said.

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