Stern gangStern gang

The party born at a hitchhiking spot

Before Elazar Stern and Yoaz Hendel were political allies, they were brothers, and commuters, in arms

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Amnon Rubinstein, center right, with Elazar Stern, center left, at a Supreme Court hearing. (Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)
Amnon Rubinstein, center right, with Elazar Stern, center left, at a Supreme Court hearing. (Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)

The two newest names in politics, Elazar Stern and Yoaz Hendel, a reserves general and a former press secretary — both likely to be placed high on Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnua (The Movement) list for the Knesset — first met at a hitchhiking spot.

During the summer of 1997, Stern, fresh from commanding the IDF’s officers’ school, had a position that allowed him to go home every night. On the way to and from the base, he would ask his driver to stop the car and pick up hitchhiking soldiers. At the time, the practice was still legal. On one occasion, according to his autobiography, “Struggling for Israel’s Soul,” he pulled up in front of a young Naval commando officer and told him to hop in. “No thanks. I’m all set,” said the 22-year-old Hendel.

Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern made decisions bold and provocative throughout his service. He launched the IDF conversion course for halakhically non-Jewish Israelis and forced religious platoons tied to the Hesder yeshiva program to disband and disperse among the secular majority. He initiated army trips to the death camps in Poland and made known that he would oust any cadet who failed to stand for an old woman on the bus. And he once shut down the army weekly Bamachaneh for profiling an out-of-the-closet gay reserves colonel on the cover.

Yoaz Hendel in 2010 (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)
Yoaz Hendel in 2010 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

Hendel, 37, a major in the reserves with a doctorate in history — on intelligence operations during the Maccabean to Roman period — served as the director of communications and public diplomacy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In February 2012, he left the post after going over the prime minister’s head to the attorney general to report a case of sexual harassment by a Netanyahu aide. The Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel awarded him the 2012 prize for his actions.

The two seem temperamentally different — Stern is loved and reviled for always speaking his mind — but similar in their centrist outlook.

Back to 1997: After some convincing, Stern persuaded the lieutenant to get in the car. Hendel, the commander of a team of warriors, told him that he had just come back from driving a dead friend’s car back to his house.

Days earlier, the Naval commandos suffered their worst operational loss ever when, on September 4, 12 soldiers were killed in a Hezbollah ambush, which was apparently enabled by the organization’s ability to steal the IDF’s then-uncoded drone feed.

According to Stern’s recollection, Hendel, a native of the religious settlement of Elkana, was upset by questions in the media at the time about the number of religious soldiers trapped in the ambush. He and one of the soldiers who was killed, Yochanan Hillberg, did not cover their heads, he said, but kept Shabbat and were known as “dossim,” Israeli slang for religious — and very much the demographic Livni hopes to draw toward her centrist party.

The two continued to speak on the journey. It’s unclear what sort of impression Stern made on Hendel, but the former was certainly moved by the meeting. Several weeks later, he called Hendel’s mother in Elkana. She was suspicious. She said her son did not hitch rides and tried to hang up the phone. Only after he revealed his identity did she apologize and listen to what he had to say: “I wanted to tell you that I would be happy if your son were to marry my daughter.”

The mother, a religious woman who knew that Stern too was religious, mumbled that in the settlement “people say some not such good things” about her son and his level of observance. “I asked her if she thinks that I call the mother of every soldier I give a lift to and offer them my daughter,” Stern wrote.

Hendel stayed in touch with the general, showing up at his house on occasion and even offering his assistance during the disengagement from Gaza, Stern’s toughest hour as a religious officer in the IDF.

Hendel did not, despite the general’s affection, marry Stern’s daughter.

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