Elazar Stern drops Jewish Agency candidacy amid burgeoning controversy

Intelligence minister withdraws candidacy, apologizes as outcry snowballs over his remarks about trashing anonymous harassment complaints

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern sits in the Knesset during a meeting of the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 14, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern sits in the Knesset during a meeting of the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 14, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern withdrew his candidacy for Jewish Agency chairman Tuesday afternoon, amid a growing controversy over comments he made earlier this week suggesting he had ignored sexual harassment complaints during his time as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

Writing on Facebook, Stern announced that he would be dropping his Jewish Agency bid in response to a public outcry.

“I apologize to anyone who has been hurt or offended by what I said and the interpretation given [to my words], and apologize to my family, which is standing firmly by me despite the difficulty. I will continue to do my best, wherever I may be, to ensure a better future for the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” he wrote.

After being appointed intelligence minister upon the formation of the new government earlier this year, Stern was agreed upon as the prime minister’s candidate to head the Jewish Agency, with the nomination process set to begin in just days.

By tradition, the prime minister suggests a candidate to head the quasi-governmental organization — the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization — and the candidate is generally rubberstamped by the agency’s nominating committee and then by its board of governors.

A handful of other prominent names — including former Likud MK and ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren — have been mentioned for the job.

Elazar Stern (photo credit: courtesy)
Elazar Stern as a two-star general in charge of IDF manpower (photo credit: courtesy)

The outcry began when Stern, the coalition’s candidate to head the Jewish Agency, said in a radio interview on Sunday morning that he had “shredded many anonymous complaints” during his time as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, indicating he was referring to claims of sexual assault as well.

In a damage control bid, Stern toured the major networks on Sunday evening, apologizing if his remarks had caused offense, and saying that none of the anonymous complaints he had shredded related to sexual assault.

However, a woman told Channel 13 news anonymously on Sunday evening that Stern, at the time the head of the IDF’s officers’ school, had warned her not to repeat allegations she’d raised against a noncommissioned officer, or else her life would be “dark and bitter.” Stern denied saying those words, but conceded that his treatment of the case “may not have been good.”

On Monday, Channel 13 aired the testimony of a second woman, now aged 49, who served as an officer at the IDF officers’ school, the military’s most significant educational institution, when Stern was its commander.

The woman, who had been in charge of dealing with sexual harassment cases at the time, said Stern had ignored complaints by herself and by others, alleging that the base had an “atmosphere of harassment, of touchy officers.”

She said she was “shocked” when Stern gave interviews Sunday night to all three major Israeli TV news networks, claiming he had never silenced sexual harassment complaints.

Stern’s office initially replied that “from the few details we were given, it seems like the case is familiar to Minister Stern and was directly and stringently handled by him. The [offending] officer was relocated and his service was shortened.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid initially backed Stern, a member of his Yesh Atid party, saying in a Monday statement: “Yesh Atid is a party where there is zero tolerance and zero backing for sexual harassment. We believe that women should be protected and allowed to complain in any way they see fit. If Stern had said he had shredded complaints about sexual harassment, we would have said goodbye to him later that day. He did not say that, and he does not believe in that.”

During his radio interview Sunday, and with the conversation clearly focusing on claims of sexual assault, the minister replied several times “yes” to whether he’d shredded anonymous complaints. When asked if he was referring to women’s complaints specifically, Stern said he didn’t “remember exactly whether it was by women.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (R) with MK Elazar Stern at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)

Stern was once the commander of the IDF officers’ school and later served as the head of the Education and Youth Corps and of the Manpower Directorate, before entering the Knesset in 2013. He has served as intelligence minister since June.

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