Opposition says Netanyahu overplayed Lebanon operation

Opposition leader says Israeli Prime Minister overplayed army's discovery of cross-border tunnels for political gain.

JERUSALEM - Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday of over-dramatising the army's discovery of Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon for political gain.

Livni told public radio that while she and the rest of the opposition welcomed the army's discovery of the tunnels and their eventual demolition, "the incident 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 Hezbollah.

"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 discovered Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon and launched an operation to destroy them.

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the "attack tunnels" dug by the Shiite militant group backed by Iran, Israel's main enemy, 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 Jewish state's "Mr Security", went on television on Tuesday evening to explain the tunnel threat, with armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot at his side.

Netanyahu is seeking to hold his governing coalition together after last month's resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman over a controversial Gaza ceasefire, which left him clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament.

The premier took over the defence portfolio after Lieberman's resignation.

He 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 from residents of southern Israel who say he has failed to quash the threat of cross-border rocket fire from militants 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."

Livni later told foreign journalists in a phone briefing that the international community should bring greater pressure on Lebanon over Hezbollah's activities.

No real facts

Meanwhile Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Israel provided no evidence of cross-border attack tunnels in a meeting with UN peacekeepers on Wednesday.

There was no comment from Iran-backed Hezbollah.

"The Israelis did not present any information," at the meeting with the Lebanese army and the UNIFIL peacekeeping force, a statement from Berri's office said.

Berri, a political ally of Hezbollah, said Lebanon had asked for geographic coordinates but received none.

"This (Israeli accusation) is not based on any real facts at all," Ali Bazzi, a lawmaker from Berri's parliamentary bloc cited the speaker as saying after a meeting.

Lebanon's foreign ministry will submit a complaint to the United Nations about "repeated Israeli violations," state news agency NNA said.

Mechanical diggers, drills and other heavy machinery were seen from south Lebanon throughout Tuesday, working on the Israeli side of the heavily-guarded border.

Netanyahu said late on Tuesday the operation would continue for as long as necessary.

The Lebanese army said it was "fully prepared to face any emergency" and its side of the border remained calm on Tuesday.

Israel and Hezbollah have avoided major conflict across the border since their last war in 2006, though Israel has mounted attacks in Syria targeting the heavily armed Shiite Hezbollah.