The arrest of Jeffrey Epstein shortly after Ehud Barak announced his return to Israeli political life was a much-needed lucky break for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After months of playing defense against the never-ending stream of details regarding the contents of the prime minister's pending indictment on corruption charges, one could practically feel the exhilaration in the Netanyahu camp at being able to finally go on the offensive — launching a full-throttle attack against Barak, leader of the new Democratic Israel party.
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As the Epstein saga has exploded across the media since the financier’s arrest Saturday for the alleged sex trafficking of minors, Netanyahu and his supporters have chosen to make Barak’s ties to Epstein the focus of their campaign ahead of September’s election. Spearheading the attack is Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yair, who tweeted relentlessly about Epstein and Barak while berating the press for not covering it more intensively. “If it was my father photographed walking out of Epstein’s townhouse,” he asked, "wouldn’t it be all over the news?”
Barak is legitimately vulnerable on the Epstein question. He still has never given a satisfactory explanation for what has been documented: Receiving $2.3 million from the Wexner Foundation in 2004 for “research.” Epstein was a trustee and board member of the foundation at the time, part of the intertwined business and philanthropic relationship with his biggest client, Leslie Wexner. The Manhattan townhouse in which Epstein is accused of luring underage girls was owned by Wexner before he gave it to Epstein outright. Wexner, who cut ties with Epstein in 2008 when accusations of Epstein’s sexual transgressions began to emerge, has for decades underwritten a family foundation dedicated to cultivating Jewish leadership in Israel and the Diaspora. A countless number of Israeli government and military figures have spent time at Harvard under its auspices — but the Barak payment stands out as irregular and different from the foundation’s usual activities.
Netanyahu and his allies lost no time in taking full advantage of Barak’s weakness, posting a sinister video asserting that Epstein “managed the Wexner Foundation, which gave Barak $2.3 million, for research that never took place and never existed. Barak, till this day, refuses to discuss that research." The video cuts to a clip of Barak avoiding a journalist's questions about the funds he received in 2004. It ends with a narrator asking the insinuating question: “What else did the sex criminal give to Ehud Barak?”
On Wednesday, in an effort to keep the story in the headlines, Netanyahu’s Likud party went a step further, asking the attorney general to open a criminal investigation against Barak, “in order to expose the cover-up of his personal and business connections with the evil criminal pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.” (Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting and procuring a minor for prostitution, serving 13 months in jail.)
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The frequency and ferocity of the attacks on Barak from the Netanyahu camp might lead one to believe the former prime minister and defense minister is Netanyahu’s chief rival for the prime ministership.
But nothing could be further from the truth. In all of the polling since he entered the fray last month, Barak’s newly formed party has been shown to win only a handful of seats, barely enough to stay above the electoral threshold.
Netanyahu’s real competition — the man who would be prime minister if the center-left bloc triumphs in September — is Benny Gantz, the former army chief who heads the centrist Kahol Lavan party, which is running neck and neck with Likud. So why is Netanyahu’s camp aiming its fire at Barak?
First and foremost, Gantz simply hasn’t provided much for them to attack. In April’s election, Likud’s attempt to throw mud on squeaky-clean Gantz by bringing up a “MeToo” allegation of sexual misconduct when he was a teenager fell flat. Poking fun at Gantz’s gaffes while speaking publicly, stuttering in a satellite newscast, and using it to label him as “unstable” came off as baseless and mean.
Netanyahu’s second nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman — whose refusal to join his governing coalition triggered the “do-over” election — also presents problems as a Netanyahu target. Much of Netanyahu and Lieberman’s political histories are intertwined. Attacking someone from within the right-wing camp is frowned upon by Likud voters, it seems Netanyahu does not want to elevate him as a potential leadership rival by giving him attention. The more Netanyahu pushes him, the higher Lieberman’s poll numbers rise. (Attempts by Netanyahu to label Lieberman as a “leftist” were literally laughed off.)
This leaves Barak as the perfect target against which to implement the central strategy in the Donald Trump playbook: If you can’t wash yourself clean, point out the dirt on everybody else — and add more if you can. When others are stained, Netanyahu can argue that everyone is filthy.
As a bonus, unlike Gantz, Barak has been around the block enough times to make enemies as bitter as Netanyahu’s own. Barak-bashers have been getting a hand from embittered former Labor Minister Haim Ramon, who has taken to right-wing outlets to besmirch Barak at every opportunity.
Barak, for his part, is the “un-Gantz” in that he seems only too enthusiastic to respond to attacks and get into a down-and-dirty battle. The Epstein-centered charges don’t seem to have deterred him in the least. He released his own accusatory video, which opens with the words “Bibi: You want to talk about criminal activities: How about this,” followed by a montage of Netanyahu’s alleged criminal associations — including a graphic of the prime minister with shekels raining on him.
While it is not clear whether this slugfest will help or hurt Barak or Netanyahu, it seems fairly clear who has the greatest potential to benefit. If Gantz and his Kahol Lavan crew manage to stay above the fray, they will attract voters who are turned off by the mudslinging, choosing the candidate who may lack political experience, but isn’t weighed down by ugly baggage either.