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-former Labor 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, Haaretz reported 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.