London (AFP) - The popular British tabloid The Daily Mail on Thursday defended a decision to publish photos in the US of one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election rivals entering the mansion of disgraced American financier Jeffrey Epstein in 2016.
Ehud Barak's lawyers wrote to the British company's US-based website on Wednesday demanding it remove Tuesday's story and pay "substantial damages to vindicate his reputation and compensate him".
Epstein was convicted in 2009 as a sex felon and served a 13-month prison term. He was arrested in New York on July 8 this year on further charges of sexually exploiting dozens of underage girls.
"DailyMail.com stands by its recent story concerning Ehud Barak's relationship with the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein 100 percent," the company said in a statement to AFP.
"We note that Mr Barak's assertion that he was not party to Mr Epstein's illegal activities is a denial of a claim we have never made."
The newspaper's US website ran photos of four young women separately entering Epstein's New York residence around the same time as Barak himself went in.
It stressed in a separate statement that the story did not run in its print edition in Britain -- a country with more stringent libel laws than those in the United States.
Israeli media have also highlighted Barak's past business ties with Epstein.
Barak hinted that Netanyahu and his allies could be behind the media attention.
The publication firmly denied the claim.
"The suggestion that the article was published maliciously in order to 'benefit his political opponent' is absurd," the statement said.
"It is absolutely clear that this is a story of the utmost public interest."
Barak is a former armed forces chief of staff who succeeded Netanyahu as prime minister in 1999 and served as defence minister under him from 2009 to 2013 before retiring from politics.
He formed a new party in June that will compete in September legislative elections called by Netanyahu after the prime minister was unable to form a new government in the wake of inconclusive April polls.