Lapid calls Netanyahu an ‘existential threat’ as they spar over national security

‘All that is left of Mr. Security’ are ‘ruins from Be’eri to Kiryat Shmona,’ says Lapid. Opposition leader ‘preferred to stay abroad… while Israel was attacked,’ counters Likud

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

File - Opposition Leader Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum, April 15, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)
File - Opposition Leader Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum, April 15, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused each other of being weak on security on Monday, trading barbs about Iran’s massive drone and missile attack against Israel this weekend.

Addressing the press ahead of his Yesh Atid party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday morning — held this week despite the legislative recess — Lapid declared that Netanyahu and his government “have become an existential threat to Israel.”

Claiming that Netanyahu had eroded Israeli deterrence, Lapid stated that both Israel’s friends and enemies “smell weakness” from the current government.

“I was in Washington last week, in meetings with the entire administration. They are shocked by this government: by the lack of responsibility, by the lack of professionalism, by the mismanagement,” he said.

“All that is left of Mr. Security” are “ruins from Be’eri to Kiryat Shmona, violence by Jewish terrorists who have become out of control, and a complete loss of Israeli deterrence,” he claimed.

Responding to Lapid’s criticism, Netanyahu’s Likud party accused the opposition leader of hypocrisy and criticized him for spending the weekend abroad while Israel was attacked by Iran.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in Washington, April 10, 2024. (Shahar Azran)

“Lapid, who signed a shameful surrender agreement with Hezbollah and preferred to stay abroad this week while Israel was attacked, is not the man to preach,” Likud said in a statement referring to a US-brokered maritime deal with Lebanon signed by the then-prime minister Lapid in 2022.

Netanyahu “recognized the Iranian threat decades ago and since then has been leading the global campaign against it,” the Likud statement added.

Lapid has touted the agreement on the two countries’ maritime border as an enemy state’s formal recognition of the State of Israel, while Netanyahu dismissed it as a “surrender” by Israel to threats from the Hezbollah terror group.

As Iran launched a large wave of around 300 attack drones and missiles from its territory toward the Jewish state on Saturday, Lapid was in the United States following a week of meetings with American officials.

Although his last publicized meeting was with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday, Lapid did not immediately return to Israel, despite Iranian threats to exact revenge for an April 1 attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus allegedly carried out by Israel.

Hitting back, Lapid issued a statement of his own and doubled down on his criticism.

“Israeli deterrence in Lebanon collapsed when Netanyahu allowed Hezbollah to set up tents inside the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, unlike Lapid, who reached a maritime agreement despite Hezbollah’s opposition,” Lapid’s office stated — a reference to tents set up by Hezbollah operatives on the Israeli side of the Blue Line between the two nations last year.

“As for Iran — if Netanyahu worked all these years on the Iranian issue, how did they become a nuclear-threshold country and send hundreds of drones and cruise missiles to attack the State of Israel?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the war cabinet in Tel Aviv early morning April 14, 2024. (Courtesy)

The tension between the two may be the reason why Netanyahu did not invite Lapid for a security update following Saturday’s attack, despite sending out invitations to New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, a source in Yesh Atid confirmed an earlier report by news site Walla, stating that “Netanyahu’s office didn’t try to set up a meeting.”

A spokesman for Liberman said that he had been invited, but “no date has been set,” while a spokesman for Sa’ar told The Times of Israel that the former cabinet minister was likewise invited, but the meeting had been canceled due to a scheduling issue on Netanyahu’s side.

A spokesman for Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment.

Lapid continued to hammer at the prime minister in the afternoon, calling on National Unity ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot to help bring down the government during a speech in the Knesset plenum.

“The way to influence is helping us overthrow this government. And we will form a government and in this government they will have much more influence. Benny Gantz may be the prime minister. There is no citizen who would not welcome Eisenkot as Israel’s defense minister,” he said.

Arguing that Gantz and Eisenkot’s positions are being ignored by the current leadership, Lapid contended that by helping to tank the government “they can really affect the destiny of this country in a positive, substantial, and profound way.”

Ministers Benny Gantz (L) and Gadi Eisenkot present an outline for the draft of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army during a press conference in the Knesset, February 26, 2024. (Sam Sokol)

Even if the National Unity party left the government, as its former partner New Hope recently did, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition would still have enough seats to remain in power.

New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar quit the coalition in March, after Netanyahu declined to appoint him to the war cabinet.

Earlier this month, Gantz called on Netanyahu to “agree on a date for elections in September,” an appeal rejected by the prime minister. According to recent polls, nearly three-quarters of the Israel public want Netanyahu to resign against the backdrop of the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, with half the country also preferring early elections for the Knesset.

Netanyahu has notably avoided taking responsibility for the October 7 onslaught, unlike the defense minister and many top IDF officers, and a majority of Israelis believe that his performance since October 7 has been subpar.

Following Lapid’s speech, Eisenkot also took a swipe at Netanyahu, stating that his talk of “total victory” in Gaza was “misguided.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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