Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused the prime minister and defense minister, his political rivals, of mismanaging Israel’s relationship with Russia, amid growing tensions over Moscow’s attempt to force the Jewish Agency for Israel from its borders.
At a press conference in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said that for years “we have led a measured, balanced and responsible relationship” with Russia, but that there was currently “a dangerous crisis” and Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were “babbling” and “endangering our national security.”
“We can and need to get out of this crisis,” he said. “I’m worried that what we built over years is being undermined before our eyes in recent weeks.”
He blamed “a combination of amateurism, irresponsibility and arrogance” and called on Lapid and Gantz to “stop the babbling” on the issue.
Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, and Lapid was quick to condemn the attack as foreign minister, later accusing Russia of “war crimes.” Last week, Moscow ramped up its efforts to expel the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency from its borders, impairing its ability to encourage and facilitate Jewish immigration to Israel.
Netanyahu, who hopes to regain his role as prime minister after the November 1 elections, has not mentioned Ukraine since the invasion. Before being unseated last June, the former prime minister worked to actively warm Israel’s ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an official response to Netanyahu, a spokesman for Lapid said that “there is no crisis,” a position Putin’s personal spokesman expressed Tuesday.
The reasons for Moscow’s pressure on the Jewish Agency are unconfirmed, but political rivals claim that Russia’s actions against it were because of Lapid’s many condemnations of Russia’s invasion.
“If Netanyahu had bothered to come to Prime Minister Lapid for security and diplomacy updates, Netanyahu would have known the facts,” the Lapid spokesman continued, adding that “for the benefit of the security of the State of Israel and Russian Jewry, this is an issue that must be handled discreetly and through government channels, and not in press conferences.”
Over the past year, Netanyahu has consistently eschewed his right to receive security briefings from the sitting prime minister, as per his role as opposition leader.
Gantz, in response to Netanyahu, quickly tweeted that “the Israeli government conducts itself with responsibility and determination in order to protect the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” before adding: “The last person who can talk about unnecessary squabbling on security issues is Netanyahu.”
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu helmed the state from 2009 to 2021, following an earlier period from 1996 to 1999. In recent years, he invested heavily in warming relations with Putin, including establishing security cooperation to enable Israeli aerial sorties into its northern neighbor Syria, which has Russian military presence.
Under Lapid and former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s leadership, Israel tried to find a way to maintain working relations with both Ukraine and Russia after the outbreak of fighting. The Bennett-Lapid government absorbed criticism from the West for taking too neutral a stance on the invaded country, and Israel took two months to answer Ukrainian requests for defensive aid, attempting to avoid angering Russia.