Ehud Barak’s cautionary tale about wealthy connections

Israelis have often treated the Diaspora as a 24-hour ATM. The Epstein case shows that even leaders who ought to know better can take on shady partners.

Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party, gives a statement to the media during a visit to Ariel in the West Bank on July 16, 2019. Photo by Roy Alima/Flash90.
Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party, gives a statement to the media during a visit to Ariel in the West Bank on July 16, 2019. Photo by Roy Alima/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Ehud Barak’s legacy just got a lot more complicated. The former prime minister is attempting a political combat at the age of 77, in which he hopes to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next Knesset elections in September. But his already shaky hopes of making a comeback after sitting out the last several years of political combat on the sidelines have been further diminished by reports of his connections to American financier/convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

It remains to be seen just how badly Barak will be damaged by revelations of his business partnerships with Epstein, in addition to his inability to give a good answer as to why he was unaware that he had established close ties with someone who had already been convicted of molesting young girls. But the broader issue that this story raises is not so much about Barak’s character as the casual manner with which many Israeli leaders have always regarded the Diaspora as merely a full-time ATM to be used without much thought about the consequences.

While American Jews’ lack of understanding about Israel is much discussed, some Israelis who ought to know better are astonishingly clueless about the Diaspora Jews with whom they hobnob and tap for money. In that sense, the discussion of the Barak-Epstein connection isn’t so much a political issue as it is a cautionary tale.

One of Israel’s most distinguished soldiers, Barak’s 1995 retirement from the Israel Defense Forces after 35 years was followed by a meteoric rise in the country’s political establishment. In four short years, he went from a post as head of the foreign ministry to the leadership of the Labor Party and then to a landslide victory over Netanyahu in the 1999 elections that got him the country’s top job.

His 20 months’ stay in the prime minister’s office was as brief and disastrous as his ascent had been swift and glorious. Barak was politically inept and given to rash gestures. He then threw all caution to the wind by going to Camp David in July 2000 to offer Yasser Arafat and the PLO a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and part of Jerusalem, violating both the late Yitzhak Rabin’s red lines about negotiations and an Israeli consensus about never dividing Jerusalem. Arafat turned him and a crestfallen President Bill Clinton down flat, and then answered the peace offer with a terrorist war of attrition that came to be known as the Second Intifada.

The subsequent carnage and bloodshed destroyed the faith of Israelis in the Oslo process and Barak’s judgment. Within months, he was forced to resign and then easily defeated for re-election by Ariel Sharon and the Likud by an even more lopsided margin than the one that had put Barak in office.

After that, Barak retired to private life, where he began a consulting career in finance that was based primarily on his celebrity and ability to open doors around the world for his partners. Then he again returned to public life, and in 2009, he brought what was left of Labor into Netanyahu’s government and became his former antagonist’s defense minister. The two served together until Barak retired again in 2013.

But the restless former IDF chief of staff was not content as a millionaire businessman. He is now once again vying for political power, vowing to cleanse Israel of the taint of the alleged corruption of Netanyahu.

Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the initial reaction to Barak’s decision from the Israeli public was underwhelming. His pose as the nation’s savior rings false for anyone who remembers the years during which he and Netanyahu ran the country together.

Yet the questions about Barak’s ties to Epstein raise different questions about his own ethics.

Barak first met Epstein in the early 2000s and received millions from the Wexner Foundation, which was closely associated with the hedge fund mogul, for unspecified “research.” That was before Epstein’s plea bargain for molesting underage girls in 2008, for which he received a light sentence. But while many of the elites of the literary, academic and business world shunned Epstein after his legal woes began, Barak did not. In 2015, Epstein invested $1 million in a technology startup for which Barak was playing the role of front man.

Epstein is now under federal indictment for still more charges of molestation. Barak has said that he knew nothing of Epstein’s legal problems.

Unfortunately for Barak, a scoop that broke this past week by London’s Daily Mail revealed that he was photographed entering Epstein’s home in 2016 with his face partially concealed by a scarf on the same day that four young women were also photographed entering Epstein’s abode. Barak says he will sue the newspaper for defamation, but the pictures undermine his claims of ignorance about Epstein’s proclivities.

Even we if we accept Barak’s assertions of innocence, it still begs the question of how a man with legendary smarts could have chosen Epstein for a business partner. Barak’s known for his attention to details. His hobby is taking apart clocks and watches, and putting them back together. Yet apparently, he never bothered to do due diligence about a person that was putting millions into his pockets.

If Barak is telling the truth, then I think it has more to do with the way some Israeli elites regard American Jews as merely a mechanism to procure money. Just as philanthropies don’t ask too many questions about donors, so, too, do Israeli politicians often treat American Jews as simply a means to an end without bothering to think much about who or what they might be. That’s the only possible explanation—other than moral turpitude—for a control freak like Barak continuing to do business with a shady character like Epstein.

Barak’s chances of returning to power were always doubtful, but now, the revelation of his association with Epstein provides other Israelis with an example to be avoided in the future.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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