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.