JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is playing down his ties with Jeffrey Epstein — the U.S. financier jailed on sex-trafficking charges.
Barak’s connection with Epstein has emerged in Israel just days after the 78-year-old former premier announced his political comeback in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to U.S. tax records, Barak received some $2 million in grants last decade from the Wexner Foundation — a philanthropic organization that supports Jewish causes founded by U.S. billionaire Leslie Wexner.
The documents say the grants were for unspecified “research.” At the time of the grants, Epstein was a trustee of the foundation. Netanyahu has accused the media of remaining “silent” about the matter.
In a radio interview Thursday, Barak said he met Epstein several times, but said he “didn’t support me or pay me.”
He said he has met many people over the years, some of whom turned out to be involved in “problematic things,” including Harvey Weinstein.
“I also met Netanyahu,” he quipped. Israel’s attorney general has recommended criminal charges against Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases.
The Wexner Foundation did not immediately respond to queries seeking comment.
Jews Jakob Frank & Weinstein
The Times of Israel
Israel Democratic Party chief Ehud Barak on Saturday evening defended his business ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier charged with sexually abusing young girls, explaining that at the time of his work with Epstein he believed the businessman had paid his debt to society.
Speaking to Channel 12’s “Meet the Press,” Barak accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of pushing the story to the media, calling it “a spin that serves the prime minister.”
Noting that “there is no accusation against me of any wrongdoing,” Barak said Netanyahu, “a prime minister up to his neck in criminal cases,” was “trying to create a comparison between us through this story about a private third party who committed crimes in another country.”
Barak said it was “important for the left not to fall into this trap.”
Senior officials in the Labor and Meretz parties have told Channel 12 that Barak’s ties to Epstein had significantly lowered their parties’ chances of merging with his newly formed Israel Democratic Party. In closed conversations, the officials said that Barak’s ties to the financier would make it more difficult for their parties to pitch themselves to the public as champions in the fight against corruption.
Epstein was indicted for creating what prosecutors described as a network of underage girls whom he molested and exploited in the early 2000s.
In 2008, Epstein signed a non-prosecution deal that required him to admit to a single state charge of soliciting prostitution from a minor and register as a sex offender. He served just 13 months in a county jail.
Barak had been an active business partner with the disgraced financier as late as 2015. He formed a limited partnership company in Israel that year, called Sum (E.B.) 2015, to invest in a high-tech startup. A large part of the investment money was supplied by Epstein, Haaretz reported Thursday.
Barak said he saw no problem at the time with going into business with Epstein. “He’d served his sentence for soliciting prostitution — the indictment didn’t say she was a minor,” but added that “according to the information now he’s committed very serious offenses.”
But Barak noted that he was far from the only one to deal with Epstein after his jail time, saying his milieu included “the presidents of leading US universities, the world’s leading philanthropists, Nobel laureates, secretaries and deputy secretaries in the Obama administration and central figures in the Trump administration.
“The American system itself did not label him as a persona non grata…the secretary who just resigned in the Trump administration was the prosecutor and he said he’d been negligent — so you expect me to have noticed [anything wrong]?”
Barak admitted he still had business ties to companies connected to Epstein and said since the new charges came to light he has instructed his lawyers to review options to disconnect from them.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s Likud party on Saturday called on the attorney general to investigate Barak’s relationship with Epstein.
The business relationship has become a favorite election talking point for Netanyahu after Barak reentered the political fray last month, announcing a new party formed for the purpose of unseating the premier.
Barak, a former prime minister and defense minister who formerly led Labor, announced his political comeback last month after a six-year hiatus, launching the new party. He has called repeatedly for parties on the center-left to run on a joint list, which he says is necessary to unseat Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has seized on the reports of Barak’s connection to Epstein, taking to social media Thursday with the demand: “Investigate Ehud Barak immediately.”
The prime minister did not say what behavior on Barak’s part could be the subject of a criminal probe, as no action described in the report appeared illegal.
Barak responded on Twitter: “You don’t have to investigate — I confess. I gave a second chance, both to Epstein and to Bibi [Netanyahu]. Both are now neck-deep in criminality. I expect both to recuse themselves until the truth is ascertained.”
He added: “For my part, all my activities were those of a private citizen, not a minister or prime minister. All were legal, reported to the authorities, and taxes were paid on them.”
Addressing Netanyahu, he added, “How about you?”
Netanyahu is at the center of three criminal investigations into alleged corruption, which he denies.
Jeffrey Epstein’s membership in the private-jet set may have enabled him to get away with innumerable crimes over the past several decades. It also brought many other wealthy elites into contact with the alleged sex trafficker and child rapist (and, less convincingly, alleged billionaire). His arrest last weekend has called unwelcome attention to several high-profile figures in U.S. politics for their past dealings with him: soon-to-be-formerLabor Secretary Alexander Acosta, most notably, as well as President Donald Trump and former president Bill Clinton.
Epstein’s network of fellow rich men isn’t limited to the U.S., however, and neither is the political fallout from his arrest. Like other American Jews of expansive means, Epstein had acquaintances and connections among Israel’s political bigwigs, which are now coming into play in the chaotic, hotly contested election campaign there.
Last Sunday, the day after Epstein was taken into federal custody, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged that Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and emerging rival in the upcoming polls, had significant ties to Epstein. On Twitter, Netanyahu shared a screenshot of an article on an obscure Hebrew-language news website that highlighted Epstein’s business relationship with billionaire Les Wexner, whose foundation granted Barak several million dollars between 2004 and 2006. He also claimed that Barak had attended a party hosted by Epstein in 2016 — long after he took a sweetheart plea deal that required him to register as a sex offender.
Barak waved off the accusation, pointing out that Netanyahu is facing criminal charges himself in three corruption cases and adding that he had been introduced to Epstein by Shimon Peres, the late president who is the subject of nonpartisan admiration in Israel. His implication was that if Netanyahu wanted to depict Barak as a sleazeball for merely having known Epstein, he would have to tar the saintly Peres (as well as his good friend Trump) with the same broad brush.
The guilt-by-association trick might not fly, but Barak has legitimate questions he has refused to answer about why he accepted $2.3 million from the Wexner Foundation, of which Epstein was a trustee, for “research” in 2004, when he was a private citizen. Netanyahu’s Likud party wasted no time asking the attorney general to investigate Barak, writing in its complaint: “Mr. Barak was photographed coming out of Mr. Epstein’s apartment in 2016. So close were the ties between the two that Mr. Barak’s name even appeared in Mr. Epstein’s black notebook.”
And the hits keep on coming for Barak: On Thursday night, Haaretzreported that Epstein also joined in a partnership with him to invest in a security-tech startup in 2015. “I saw the business opportunity and registered a partnership in my control in Israel. A small number of people I know invest in it,” Barak told Haaretz. “Since these are private investments, it wouldn’t be proper or right for me to expose the investors’ details.”
Whether or not the attorney general decides to open an investigation into Barak’s relationship with Epstein, it’s definitely become a serious political liability for the former Labor party leader. Barak only announced his return to politics last month and just unveiled the name of his new party (Democratic Israel) last Saturday, right when Epstein was being collared. It makes for an inauspicious start when his rival has the opportunity to run campaign videos asking “what else the sex offender gave Ehud Barak.” Having downplayed his ties to Epstein, the revelation of deeper and more recent business connections looks even more suspicious, even though there may be nothing illegal about them.
Netanyahu’s reasons for jumping on this story and gunning for Barak are harder to understand, as the prime minister has much bigger fish to fry if he hopes to survive September’s election. These polls were called as a do-over after Likud won a plurality in the Knesset in April but Netanyahu failed to form a coalition. His main threats are an alliance of centrist parties led by former Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz, and the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party led by Netanyahu’s ally-turned-rival Avigdor Lieberman, who is expected to play kingmaker whatever the outcome of the election may be.
Barak’s party is not a serious contender, pulling four or five out of 120 Knesset seats in most recent polls. So why go after him? For one thing, Haaretz writer Allison Kaplan Sommer surmises, he’s low-hanging fruit. Barak has been on the Israeli political scene long enough to have collected plenty of enemies, and this scandal has practically fallen into Netanyahu’s lap. Netanyahu’s more prominent rivals are less vulnerable to attack: Likud tried to gin up a sexual-misconduct allegation against Gantz before the last election, which backfired. Attacking Lieberman would amount to right-wing infighting; besides, the outspoken populist seems to only gain in popularity the more Netanyahu tries to bring him down. (Lieberman is leaning into his Trump-esque anti-establishment image, even running on the slogan “Make Israel Normal Again.”)
While Netanyahu may have less to gain from discrediting Barak, relatively, the margin of victory for either his party or Gantz’s “Blue and White” alliance in the next election will likely be small: Recent polls show them neck-and-neck, winning between 30 and 35 seats each. If Barak’s movement falls apart and fails to meet the threshold for Knesset representation, that’s four or five seats knocked off Gantz’s potential coalition. It’s a small step toward solving Netanyahu’s bigger math problem, but at this point, he needs every edge he can get.