Achill, so to speak, has fallen over Ehud Barak’s chances to upend Bibi Netanyahu. Instead of having Israeli voters asking what the future of democracy looks like as the September election nears, suddenly the nation is debating what is reasonable attire for dealing with a cold Manhattan day.
The clothing quandary came after DailyMail.com published photos last week of the ex-prime minister seemingly hiding his face with a scarf-like garment as he approached convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion. The British tabloid reported that “within hours at least four young women had gone to the home.” Barak, who has admitted to some business ties to Epstein, claims he “never met Epstein in the company of women or young girls,” the paper reported.
Why, readers were left asking, was he wearing what the tab called “bizarre” attire, namely a gaiter worn around his neck and over part of his face (he wore it as a hat upon leaving Epstein’s place)? Barak told the Daily Beast that he was at Epstein’s house, in January 2016, for “lunch or chat, nothing else,” and that his attire just reflected the cold weather. “It was so cold that the Middle Easterner had to put on a hat.”
“Barak was on the attack, but now he’s been put on the defensive,” the pollster Camil Fuchs told The Jewish Week this week, adding, “Today he’s not the figure that he was before, when people would say, ‘here is someone to contend against Netanyahu.’”
Barak had hoped that by now, with the Aug. 1 deadline for finalizing candidate lists just days away, he would have proved himself to be a unifying force, bringing together left-leaning factions into a super-party. And he hoped that his Israel Democracy party would be flying in the polls.
Instead, the latest surveys have Barak locked out of the Knesset, failing to make the threshold for votes, and he has failed to make pacts with other parties.
Barak was dismayed by the DailyMail.com story, calling it a “baseless lie,” and unsuccessfully tried to get the news site to remove it. Barak also pointed his finger at the Netanyahu camp for being behind the post. They pointed to an allegation against Blue and White’s Benny Gantz during the last election campaign that accused him of sexual misconduct during his teenage days.
The claims against Gantz were quickly forgotten. By contrast, with the Epstein case grabbing worldwide headlines, questions about him and Barak are unlikely to go away before the election. And as Shlomo Brom, expert on Israel-U.S. relations, noted, it surrounds an issue that is particularly sensitive among the left-wing voters Barak wants to attract.
“In the United States if you belong to the Trump camp, it doesn’t matter what he does, and it’s the equivalent in Israel,” said Brom, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. “But on the other side of the political map, people care about these things, so it can hurt Barak.”