Jerusalem (AFP) - Former Israeli premier Ehud Barak, who is challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in upcoming elections, made an impassioned denial Wednesday of impropriety in his ties to disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein and hinted that Netanyahu was fanning media flames.
Barak, who has returned to politics ahead of September 17 elections as a fierce Netanyahu critic, has been the subject of reports highlighting his business ties with Epstein, who has been charged with sex trafficking of minors in the United States.
Speaking at a rally of his Israel Democratic Party late Wednesday, Barak said that he found any exploitation of women repugnant.
"I am a feminist," he said to audience applause. "To me violence and discrimination against women, silencing and marginalising women are crimes that destroy the foundations of equality and freedom."
A Tuesday report in Britain's Daily Mail showed pictures of Barak entering Epstein's New York residence in 2016, with the Israeli's face partially hidden by a neck-warmer.
"Married Israeli politician Ehud Barak is seen hiding his face entering Jeffrey Epstein's NYC townhouse as bevy of young beauties were also spotted going into mansion - despite his claim he NEVER socialized with the pedophile and his girls," said the Mail headline, which was also quoted in a letter to the paper from Barak's lawyers, threatening legal action.
Epstein had already in 2009 been convicted as a sex felon and served a 13-month prison term.
Barak's lawyers wrote to the Mail on Wednesday demanding that it retract the story immediately, apologise and pay "substantial damages to vindicate his reputation and compensate him".
"The article is disgraceful," said the letter, which was made public by Barak's spokesperson.
Barak himself on Wednesday described the report as "a despicable act, a lying and baseless blood libel".
"Like you I read the things ascribed to me and it is important to me to make clear here and now, unequivocally, they are lies and falsehoods," he said in Hebrew.
The Daily Mail report was the latest linking Epstein to Barak, whose campaign seeks to depict him as free of corruption in contrast to Netanyahu, who faces a possible corruption indictment in the months ahead.
Barak hinted that Netanyahu and his allies could ultimately be behind the media attention.
"Everyone who impedes Netanyahu and his extremists from reaching and being in government becomes a target for incitement and lies; becomes a traitor and worse," he said.
- $2.3-million grant -
A statement from Netanyahu's Likud party issued following Barak's comments said it was he who was lying.
"This lie from Ehud Barak will not let him evade answering to the citizens of Israel the question of what he did at the home of his friend and partner, the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and why he received $2.3 million for research that never existed," it said.
Israeli media have reported on a $2.3-million grant Barak received from the Wexner Foundation, where Epstein served as a trustee, for unspecified research in 2004.
Earlier this month, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Epstein, whose 2009 conviction was for soliciting prostitution from a minor, had in 2015 invested in a start-up headed by Barak.
Barak admitted to giving Epstein "a second chance," saying in Facebook posts that the American financier was a "passive investor" and he was examining ending the affiliation in light of the latest allegations.