Reporter's notebook

In the dark shadow of Epstein ties, Barak wages an underdog fight

At campaign launch event, Israel Democratic Party leader goes on the offensive like a guerrilla warrior leading a unlikely coup. It may be his only choice

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush\Flash90)
Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Hadas Parush\Flash90)

Crammed in with hundreds of sweltering people in Tel Aviv’s Kuli Alma bar Wednesday night for the official launch of Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, it was hard not to think back to the previous launch of a new anti-Netanyahu party, last winter, which on paper may have seemed like the same kind of event but was in reality a world apart.

Both the Israel Democratic Party and the Israel Resilience Party (which eventually merged with two other parties, Yesh Atid and Telem, to become Blue and White) were formed with the explicit intent of unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are headed by former IDF chiefs of staff touting their military experience. Both have railed against government corruption, religious coercion, and diplomatic stagnation, and both have pitched their political tents as a home for people who want to see change.

But the stage that Benny Gantz stepped out onto to launch Israel Resilience ahead of April’s election was a very different one from Barak’s, in more ways than one.

While Gantz held his launch at the vast but soulless Tel Aviv Expo Center, which is a frequent host for major political events and can be customized for any crowd, Barak opted for a hip underground bar that makes up in trendiness what it lacks in parking, air conditioning and space.

Israel Resilience’s carefully choreographed roll-out included branded lanyards, slightly underwhelming canapes, a party jingle playing from every speaker, reserved seating for different groups according to their status, dozens of ushers directing people to the right place at the right time and an overall sense that the organizers were following a manual of how a political event should run.

The Israel Democracy Party simply crammed 500 people into a space that held half that, and told them Barak would be speaking soon.

Israel Democratic Party supporters gather in Tel Aviv’s Kuli Alma bar for its election campaign launch, June 26, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

In military terms, Gantz seemed to be preparing an army for mass conventional warfare while Barak was a guerrilla leader ready for a coup, or at least a bar fight.

And, taking to a stage usually showcasing mediocre Israeli bands, the former prime minister came out swinging, dismissing as a “blood libel” the Likud party’s accusation that he has untoward ties with alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and pointing a finger back at Netanyahu, whom he accused of “spreading lies” while “giving refuge” to accused sex offender Natan Eshel.

In a belligerent speech that largely veered away from the text distributed by the party (and in contrast to Gantz’s somewhat wooden style), Barak asserted that a report in the UK’s Daily Mail insinuating that he met women at Epstein’s residence was a result of the “poisoned atmosphere” Netanyahu has fostered over the past two decades.

Barak’s ties to Epstein, which go back over 15 years, have become an unexpected hot-button issue in the election campaign in Israel, after Epstein was arrested earlier this month.

Epstein faces federal charges of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s. His indictment, unsealed last week, shows conspiracy and sex trafficking charges that could result in up to 45 years in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.

In this file photo from July 30, 2008, Jeffrey Epstein, center, appears in court in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post via AP)

Barak, who entered a business deal with Epstein in 2015, years after the American financier served time for solicitation, called long-rumored allegations of sex trafficking by Epstein “abhorrent” and announced that he had officially cut off all business ties with him.

But seeking to reframe the debate, he said that the rumors of his illicit ties were the real danger that needed to be tackled.

“For over 20 years, anyone who has stood against Netanyahu has been dragged through the mud and turned into a traitor,” Barak said as he set about listing the most damming of the accusations leveled against the premier in his decades-long career at the top of Israeli politics.

“Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was incited against, with Netanyahu’s blessing, until his life was taken by three shots,” Barak continued. “Those shots are a consequence of the incitement and mudslinging that is spread against anyone today who stands against Netanyahu.”

Speaking before Barak, Noa Rothman, Rabin’s granddaughter and an Israel Democratic Party candidate, said she had “joined this journey to save the country we love and we are proud of from disappearing and being destroyed.”

“For too long they have told us that things cannot be changed. That everyone is corrupt,” Rothman told the pulsing crowd. “They are wrong. There is hope. It’s possible to fix it. It’s possible to set borders [with the Palestinians]. It’s possible to provide our children with a hope for the future. It’s possible.”

For Barak, the message of hope, one that had largely guided Gantz’s maiden speech, was drowned out by a warning of impending doom, one that he said only he could prevent.

After claiming the Blue and White leader had been the target of negative attacks in the last election campaign “simply because he wanted to lead Israel to normalcy, and to ensure that Netanyahu does not hide behind his position of power and stand trial like any other citizen,” Barak, perhaps patronizingly, said he would be successful where others weren’t.

“It’s my turn. It must stop. And it will stop,” Barak declared.

Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The crowd of mainly 30- and 40-somethings lapped up the message, cheering at each new attack on Netanyahu and promise of change.

“I came to hear what he has to say. And I liked it,” said Adi Undsdorfer, 32, from Tel Aviv. “He is presenting something interesting that has been left behind for too long — being a proud leftist.”

Oded Holstman, 48, said he has been waiting for Barak to return to politics since he left it in 2013.

“He’s the only one of the leaders of this country who has the ability to carry out decisions of real importance for Israel that might not always be popular. The only one who can return the hope of a peace deal is Ehud Barak,” Holstman said.

“I don’t think he’s going to be prime minister now. I don’t believe he can do it. But he is the only one who is promising a real change. He doesn’t need to be prime minister but he can bring about a change.”

None of those in the crowd who were asked believed there was anything untoward in Barak’s ties to Epstein.

“Come on!” said one in exasperation. “How low can Bibi go? So Barak met him. Do I like that? Not especially. But sex parties? How dumb are we?”

Barak enjoys respect as the last leader of the moderate Labor Party to win an election, having defeated Netanyahu in 1999. But he also is seen by analysts as having squandered his opportunity, lasting just two years in a term that cemented his reputation as brilliant but arrogant, and prone to overcomplicated analysis and nonstop machinations.

Despite the fanfare around his return to politics, the Israel Democracy Party is polling at just four to six seats, with many accusing Barak of siphoning support away from Blue and White, which won 35 seats in April, the same as Likud.

Now, in the shadow of the Epstein scandal, tearing up the political playbook and fighting as an underdog may be his only hope of gaining some real traction. He at least made a start on it with Wednesday night’s launch.

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