Elazar Stern, a top candidate to lead the Jewish Agency, announced on Tuesday that he was withdrawing after he admitted ignoring harassment complaints while heading the manpower directorate in the military.
"In the current atmosphere, I find it wrong to put myself forward for a job to head the Jewish Agency," Stern, the intelligence minister and a member of the Yesh Atid party, wrote in a Facebook post. “I do this with clean hands and a full heart and know that all my years, my past and my actions are evidence of my path.”
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Stern apologized to those who may have been hurt by his remarks and insisted that he had always demonstrated “zero tolerance” of harassment.
“I’m not always politically correct, and I don’t always articulate myself well, but I am always loyal to the truth, my values and doing the right thing."
Stern will thus stay on as intelligence minister, meaning Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Eli Avidar, who had been slated to succeed him, will not take over the role.
Associated of Stern said he had made the decision on his own, without intervention by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who heads Yesh Atid. He has no intention of resigning as intelligence minister or as a member of Knesset, they said.
On Monday, Lapid said his party would have quickly kicked Stern out had there been evidence that the former general ever shredded sexual harassment complaints.
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In a radio interview Sunday, Stern said “the shredder worked very quickly,” referring to anonymous letters alleging harassment by soldiers or officers when Stern led the army’s Manpower Directorate from 2004 to 2008.
Speaking later to Haaretz, Stern denied the shredding of such complaints but admitted that his earlier comments could have been interpreted as such.
“If he had said he shredded complaints of sexual harassment, we would have immediately parted ways with him that day. He didn’t say that and he doesn’t believe in that,” Lapid said in a statement Monday.
“Minister Stern has never shredded any sexual harassment complaint. Every harassment complaint that landed on his desk was immediately handled with utmost seriousness. His comments only addressed complaints that commanders made against each other in the fight over [appointments to] positions.”
Lapid’s statement also commented on allegations on Channel 13 television by a soldier who in 1995 served under Stern in the army. She alleged that after she lodged a complaint regarding sexual harassment by a colleague, Stern threatened her and told her to drop it.
“Stern never dealt at all with soldiers at headquarters,” Lapid’s statement added. “Anyone who is familiar with the procedures at [his base] knows that it would be unreasonable for a sexual harassment complaint at headquarters to come to him.”
Lapid added: “In the course of his long career, Stern addressed the subject of sexual harassment with extreme sensitivity, recognizing that it is a particularly serious offense.”
Stern also told Haaretz: “By the way, since the interview, I have checked with people who worked with me regarding whether they remember an incident like that. Zero. On the contrary, an officer reminded me that I sent an officer to jail for many years over such an incident.”
Associates of Stern said the controversy was being fanned by people who seek to damage his candidacy to become chairman of the Jewish Agency.
In the interview, Stern’s “shredder” comment came after the mention of an anonymous complaint against the director designate of the Shin Bet security service. Ronen Bar’s nomination was approved by the committee on senior appointments.
“We mustn't lend a hand to a culture of anonymous letters,” Stern told the radio station, 103FM. Regarding the committee’s deliberations, Stern said that “people who have something to say should present themselves with their name and make their comments.”
When asked about his track record on the subject when he was in the Manpower Directorate, Stern replied: “I created an atmosphere among female soldiers in which there was a place for their complaints. It encouraged complaints and supported the complainant. The culture of anonymous complaints does a lot more harm than the occasional good.”
Following the criticism Sunday, Stern’s office released a statement saying: “Minister Stern, as a father with daughters, as a commander and elected official, deeply despises any sexual harasser. He believes that Israeli society and law enforcement agencies must show zero tolerance on this fundamental issue.
In the interview Sunday, Stern wanted to express a stance against the culture of anonymous complaints as a tool for settling scores and thwarting senior appointments. Complaints of sexual harassment were always examined thoroughly under his command, and he did not say at any point that complaints of sexual harassment were shredded.”