1. Doing deals with dirtbags: For days Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to get the media to report on alleged connections between former prime minister and current rival Ehud Barak, and alleged pedophile sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
- At long last, a story seems to have stuck, thanks not to Netanyahu — as far as anyone knows — but a report in Haaretz that alleges Epstein and Barak invested together in a geolocation startup called Carbyne.
- That Barak and Epstein knew each other back in the early 2000s, before stories of the financier’s dirty deeds had yet surfaced, was well known and Barak has not attempted to hide the fact. But the joint venture took place in 2015, after Epstein had served time on a sex crimes charge and with stories circulating about him still rampant.
- “Barak is the chairman of Carbyne and according to reports by business media outlets, his personal investment in the company totals millions of dollars. Haaretz has learned that Epstein financed a considerable part of the investment, thus becoming a partner in the project,” Haaretz reports.
- The story is picked up by every major mainstream media outlet in the country, and makes the front page of every major newspaper on Friday.
- The Epstein scandal “is now threatening to make waves in Israel,” Yedioth Ahronoth writes, playing up the story larger than any of the other papers.
- Haaretz notes that there are also questions surrounding Barak and Epstein’s connections via Larry Wexner, a wealthy Ohio developer and Jewish philanthropist who got Epstein his start but has since cut ties with him.
- Barak told Army Radio Thursday morning that he would be happy to open up the books on the matter, but that it’s up to the Wexner Foundation to provide the information.
2. Survey says: One might think Israel Hayom would play up the Barak-Epstein story more than the others, but in fact Barak is seen as a major threat not only to Netanyahu but also (and maybe more so) to the center-left, where his Israel Democratic Party could further diffuse the bloc.
- “Barak won’t cross the threshold, 100,000 votes will go to waste. His party has no real value,” Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid tells Channel 13 news on Friday morning, in perhaps the most direct attack on the former premier yet.
- In fact, a poll published by Maariv Friday morning, which should be taken with not just a grain of salt but the whole Dead Sea, shows Barak squeaking in with four seats.
- At the top of the list is Likud/Kulanu with 33 seats and Blue and White with 30. The biggest surprises may be Yisrael Beytenu climbing to eight seats and New Right going from zero to six seats, leapfrogging United Right-Wing Parties, who manage only four.
- Once again, the poll should be seen as only a slightly more accurate reading of the political zeitgeist than you would get from Miss Cleo.
3. Game of ones: Mergers, though, would shake up the whole shebang anyway, and speculation is rampant with parties looking to make congress.
- Israel Hayom reports that on the right, Ayelet Shaked has told URWP leader Rafi Peretz to either bend the knee and accept her as leader, or face an electoral slaying.
- More specifically the paper says Shaked has sent a crow to Peretz with an ultimatum: “Meet by Saturday and give up the No. 1 slot. If not — she will convene a press conference on Sunday, and will announce a joint run with [Naftali] Bennett, [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, and maybe even Bezalel Smotrich.”
- Makor Rishon reports that “even though polls show most of the right outside of Likud want Shaked to head a joint slate, Peretz has stood his ground and refused to vacate the No. 1 seat.”
- According to the paper, Peretz is trying to get Bennett and Smotrich over to his side to isolate Shaked, but Bennett has some steep demands if he’s going to join up, demanding five of the first 10 slots for his party alone.
4. Matchmaker, matchmaker: Even stranger may be a Yossi Verter analysis in Haaretz that finds Blue and White looking to link up with the ultra-Orthodox, or vice versa, after elections.
- “The ultra-Orthodox, who also include the Sephardi Shas party, believe that after the election a national unity government will be formed between Likud – with or without Netanyahu – and Blue and White. Their nightmare scenario, which is not written in the Torah, is that they’ll be out and Avigdor Liberman will be in. But we’re bigger, the Haredim tell their interlocutors: Even if his Yisrael Beytenu gets 10 seats, we’ll have twice as many, at least. And we are more loyal, more obedient, less crazy than he is. Take us.”
- The ultra-Orthodox would have a hard time truckling to Yair Lapid, who could end up being prime minister in the case of a three-way rotation as part of a national unity government. Verter suspects he may be willing to give that up, though it seems about as likely as a ham sandwich in Mea Shearim.
- The Kan broadcaster reports Friday that new Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz has met with recently retired Hatnua head Tzipi Livni about getting together, which appears on its face to be a throw-everything-at-the-voter-and-see-what -sticks strategy than anything else.
- Ravit Hecht in Haaretz writes that a Meretz-Labor merger would make the most sense, but Labor head Amir Peretz is less than keen on the idea.
- “What’s his problem with Horowitz and Meretz?” she asks exasperatedly. “A merger like that would firstly ensure the survival of the left’s two flagship parties, and allow it to have a fighting chance against Barak.”
5. Long in the term: Netanyahu wants to win the election (and avoid prosecution), but Yedioth’s Nahum Barnea notes that even if he loses, he’ll still surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister next week.
- Barnea notes that it’s not just the size that matters, but Netanyahu has managed to have a Ben-Gurion-esque effect on the country with his policies and diplomacy, often looking to his predecessor as an inspiration, especially in his earlier years.
- Barnea recalls a 2011 speech at Sde Boker in which Netanyahu spoke about Ben-Gurion being warned by everyone not to declare statehood, but doing it anyway. With near daily reports, and warnings, about Israel gearing up to hit Iran, the allegory was clear.
- “The speech, together with air force preparations, made an impression on [Barack] Obama. He came to the conclusion that the only way to stop Israeli military action was to reach a deal with Iran. Obama’s hands, Netanyahu’s voice.”
- Marking the occasion, Netanyahu will make it onto Time magazine’s cover for a fourth time this week. In the magazine, interviewer Brian Bennett writes that the Jewish state’s future “remains mortgaged to Netanyahu’s approach to power.”
- The article is less flattering than the last time Netanyahu was on Time’s cover, in a mostly sympathetic 2012 interview that branded him “King Bibi.”
6. A time for sanctions, a time for talks: It’s not unlikely that Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump may have spoken of the Time cover when they spoke Wednesday, seeing as the subject is one of the US president’s favorites.
- What is known, according to Netanyahu’s office Thursday, is that the two discussed the expansion of sanctions on Iran.
- Unfortunately for the Israeli leader, probably, hours later Reuters came out with a report stating that planned sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif were being put on hold.
- The agency quotes a source saying that “cooler heads prevailed,” and notes that “Blacklisting Iran’s chief negotiator would… be unusual because it could impede any US effort to use diplomacy to resolve its disagreements with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, regional activities and missile testing.”
- In Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that Israel has taken notice of Trump’s apparent reluctance to confront Iran on anything beyond the nuclear deal.
- “In Israel, this approach by Trump, who is definitely shying away from another regional war, arouses the suspicion that he is aiming for ‘Agreement 2.0,’ a return to negotiations culminating in a new nuclear arrangement with the Iranians that imposes greater demands on them,” he writes. “In the meantime both Israel and the United States are having difficulty assessing the extent to which Iran, which is interested in renewing the talks, would be prepared to be more flexible in any future negotiations beyond what it agreed to give Barack Obama’s administration.”