Epstein’s Ties to Former Israeli Leader Shake Up Election Campaign

JERUSALEM — A former Israeli leader who is seeking to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing scrutiny over his financial and personal ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier charged with sex trafficking and abusing underage girls.

Ehud Barak, 77, a former prime minister and defense minister, received some $2.3 million in payments from a foundation associated with Mr. Epstein from 2004 to 2006, and Mr. Epstein invested a reported $1 million in a limited partnership established by Mr. Barak in 2015.

Netanyahu, who is facing possible indictment in three corruption cases involving his relations with tycoons, has demanded an investigation into Mr. Barak’s relationship with Mr. Epstein.

Mr. Barak, a longtime critic of Mr. Netanyahu’s, has denied wrongdoing, said he did not know then about the allegations against Mr. Epstein and accused Mr. Netanyahu’s camp of exploiting the episode to distract from the prime minister’s own legal woes.

“He is trying to create moral equivalence between the mess he is in and myself,” Mr. Barak said of Mr. Netanyahu in a telephone interview early Wednesday.

Mr. Barak said that the Israeli leader Shimon Peres first introduced him to Mr. Epstein in 2002, and that he had probably met him a few dozen times over the years.

“I never took part in any party or event with women or anything like that,” Mr. Barak said, adding that in Mr. Epstein’s house he had met the heads of leading American universities, philanthropists, Nobel Prize winners, older women from academia, business and law, and political figures from the Clinton, Obama and Trump circles.

“He was hardly reviled by American society, so how was I to know?” Mr. Barak said. He described the stories now emerging about Mr. Epstein as “shocking.”

Mr. Epstein was accused of sexually abusing dozens of young women and girls in 2008, and served 13 months in prison for solicitation under a plea agreement that has been criticized for its leniency.

Last week, he was indicted on federal charges of sex trafficking for bringing dozens of girls, some as young as 14, to his homes in New York and Palm Beach, Fla., from 2002 to 2005. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Barak does not dispute having received some $2.3 million in three installments from the Wexner Foundation, an Ohio-based nonprofit, and its founder, Leslie H. Wexner, a retail mogul and a former close associate of Mr. Epstein’s and an investor in his financial company.

Mr. Epstein was a trustee of the Wexner Foundation and one of its main donors.

The payments were registered as compensation for research, but Mr. Barak has refused to divulge any details about the research, saying that doing so could harm his future business.

Image
CreditUma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post, via Associated Press

The Wexner Foundation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In 2015, Mr. Epstein invested in a limited partnership established and controlled by Mr. Barak to back his technology start-up, Mr. Barak has acknowledged. Israeli news media has reported that the investment was about $1 million. Mr. Barak’s company, Carbyne, formerly known as Reporty Homeland Security, specializes in emergency response geo-location and live video-streaming.

By the time of this investment, Mr. Epstein had been convicted in the 2008 case and was a registered sex offender.

After a report in the newspaper Haaretz about the 2015 investment, Mr. Barak said he had instructed his lawyers to look into ways of removing the Epstein-linked company from their partnership.

Mr. Barak’s new liberal party, the Israel Democratic Party, had not been doing well in the polls, but his relationship with Mr. Epstein has shaken up an otherwise dull campaign for the Sept. 17 ballot.

Mr. Barak was hoping to unite the disparate center-left parties into a more powerful bloc, but the Epstein episode may make him even less desirable to voters. And it has been something of a godsend for Mr. Netanyahu, who failed to form a viable government after the April ballot, forcing a second election.

A lawyer for Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party submitted a complaint to Israel’s attorney general asking for an investigation of Mr. Barak, the Wexner Foundation and another related foundation over the $2.3 million in payments, describing them as “suspicious money transfers” and raising the possibility that they may have constituted illicit political donations.

Although Mr. Barak has said that he was a private citizen at the time, the Likud lawyer argued that Mr. Barak was in and out of politics, preparing for his first political comeback with his 2007 election as leader of the Labor Party.

In the interview, Mr. Barak countered that he had signed the contract with the Wexner Foundation in 2003 for work over the next three years. “It’s impossible to predict so far ahead,” he said. “Nobody knew that I’d be back in politics, including me.”

After Mr. Netanyahu demanded in a Facebook post that Mr. Barak be investigated “immediately,” Mr. Barak responded on Twitter, saying, “There is nothing to investigate.”

Noting that both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Epstein were “criminally entangled,” he said, “ I expect them both to suspend themselves until the truth becomes clear.”

Mr. Barak beat Mr. Netanyahu in a direct election for the premiership in 1999 but went on to serve a short term in office, ending in 2001. After his 2007 comeback as Labor leader he went on to serve as defense minister in governments led by Ehud Olmert and Mr. Netanyahu before leaving office in 2013.

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, the president of the Wexner Foundation, which provides development training for Jewish volunteer leaders and Israeli public figures, has declined to say what the research payments were for. She told Israel’s Channel 12 news that she would not tell Mr. Barak how to answer and was not about to insert the foundation into the Israeli political campaign.

In a statement on the foundation’s website, Rabbi Abrahamson said the Wexner Foundation and Mr. Wexner had cut ties with Mr. Epstein “more than a decade ago.”

“Needless to say, it is a highly disturbing story,” she said. “Sexual abuse and trafficking is abhorrent and when it involves minors, all the more so. It runs contrary to every value we believe in and teach, especially the fundamental tenet that all human beings are created in God’s image. This is an individual who utterly twisted and tossed aside that sacred notion. We are sickened by Mr. Epstein’s behavior.”