Editor's note: On August 10, 2019, Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent jailhouse suicide. For more information, see The Daily Beast's reporting here.
The arrest last week of wealthy financier and sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein has resonated in Israel because of his mysterious—but well-known—ties to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who announced a new bid for office last week, and whose name appeared in Epstein’s infamous black book of prominent guests.
The news could not have come at a better time for current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing a tough reelection campaign after failing to form a government following elections in April, throwing the country into an unprecedented second consecutive electoral campaign.
Netanyahu, who has been in office for 10 years, is expected to be indicted on three counts of corruption after a hearing scheduled for October 7, less than three weeks after the September 17 vote. And he has faced an uphill struggle making accusations against his rivals stick. In June, Netanyahu’s attempts to taint hardline former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman as a “left-winger” provoked laughter from reporters.
So he wasted no time after Epstein’s arrest tweeting a published article about Barak’s alleged financial ties to Epstein, adding ominously, “and the media is silent.”
Two days later, Netanyahu tweeted a video juxtaposing Epstein’s mug shot with a 2016 photograph of Barak exiting Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse. This time, the caption was “What else did the sex offender give Ehud Barak?
The answer, if you ask Barak, who served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, is an unalloyed “nothing.”
In an exclusive interview, Barak told The Daily Beast his dealings with Epstein were entirely on the level.
“The man who introduced me to Epstein about 17 years ago was Shimon Peres,” Barak said, uncertain if the event took place in New York or Washington, but recalling it was at an event where “there were many famous and important people, including, if I recall, both Clintons and hundreds of others.”
Since then, Barak says, he has met Epstein “more than 10 times and much less than a hundred times, but I can’t tell you exactly how many. I don’t keep count. Over the years, I’ve seen him on occasion.”
“I never attended a party with him,” Barak told The Daily Beast. “I never met Epstein in the company of women or young girls.”
Barak recalls having visited Epstein at two of his Manhattan residences and said he did visit Epstein’s private Caribbean island “once, for several hours—and years after the publications about sex parties or orgies there.” But, Barak says, “I've never been there at a party.”
“To the contrary,” Barak says, “at his home, I met many very respected people, scientists, Nobel Prize winners, and I met him also in Boston, at MIT or the Harvard labs he supports.”
At these events, Barak says, he “unequivocally” never met any women or girls.
Asked if any compromising pictures of him could yet surface, he responded “there is no chance whatsoever.”
Most Israelis first heard of Epstein in January 2016, when the British tabloid The Daily Mail published paparazzi-style pictures taken over an icy weekend stakeout headlined, “The busy life of Jeffrey Epstein: Group of gorgeous Manhattan 'it' girls in and out of the billionaire sex offender's mansion before Clinton pal flies off in private jet with comely brunette.”
Buried in the article was a picture of Barak captioned “an unidentified man… with his own security detail at Jeffrey Epstein's New York Mansion.”
Israelis who saw the item laughed at the former prime minister, almost invisible in a large puffy coat and an oversized Russian-style fur hat.
“It is me in the picture,” he acknowledges. “It was so cold the Middle Easterner had to put on a hat. I was there, for lunch or chat, nothing else. So what?”
Barak has taken a humorously magnanimous approach in response to Netanyahu’s online taunts.
“It pains me to hear that people I know are in trouble with the law,” he posted, in one tweet. “First Netanyahu, now Epstein. My wish for them both is that the truth will out. Period.”
In a later tweet, posted after Netanyahu’s Likud party called on the attorney general to open a probe into Barak’s personal and business ties with Epstein, he said, “No need to investigate—I confess. I gave a second chance, both to Jeffrey and to Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname.] They are now both drowning in criminality.”
Most of the queries into Barak’s ties to Epstein focus on financial dealings that are now coming to light.
Last year, an Israeli investigative journalist revealed that in 2004 Barak received about $2.4 million earmarked “research” from the Wexner Foundation, an American philanthropy with which Epstein was long associated, that focuses on developing leadership skills among young Israeli and American Jewish citizens deemed to have potential. (Billionaire Les Wexner is Epstein’s only known client.)
Barak says he does not know if Epstein had any connection to the grant or payment he received, and in several past interviews has refused to explain what he was compensated for.
“I did what I committed to do,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he does recall the details of the contract, but believes he “is not supposed to discuss it.”
“I perform research and geopolitical consulting for a lot of interested parties,” says the former prime minister and decorated former chief of staff of Israel’s army, who is now 77 years old. “It is up to them if they want to discuss it.”
The Wexner Foundation has declined numerous media requests to provide any explanation for the 2004 payment.
Last week, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that Epstein was a principal investor in Carbyne, a video streaming and geolocation software start-up founded by Barak in 2015. The extent of Epstein’s financial involvement has not been made public, and Barak has since said he is exploring avenues to disassociate himself from Epstein completely.