General Elazar Stern was elected to the Knesset with the Yesh Atid party in September 2015 Márton Gorka

We approach General Elazar Stern with a degree of wariness. Just 24 hours ago, stories appeared in the Israeli press speculating that, at the behest of the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR), the UK authorities might arrest the Israeli politician for war crimes. Alleging that Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers under Stern’s control killed innocent civilians, the AOHR claim that, as Senior Commander, his failure to investigate the incident leaves him liable. Whether the allegations are true is unclear but, as if to add to the drama, the two other speakers booked for tonight’s event, which was organised by the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum, have cancelled last minute.

And our nerves are heightened further when Stern enters the room flanked by bodyguards. As he settles into his chair, we exchange pleasantries and he quickly shoots a terse word or two to his bodyguards before there is a moment of silence.

Before our brains can engage, we discover that Keir's mouth has decided to fill that silence by beginning to ask the question that we were intending to save until the end of the interview, by which time, we hope, Stern will have warmed to us or, at least, begun to take us seriously. 

Nonetheless, we persevere and, with but a brief stutter, we ask him whether he is aware of the allegations, and how he would like to respond to them.

Stern, to his credit, tackles the issue head-on. “I’m not afraid,” he tells us. “First of all, I don’t know if it was a real story. Maybe the Palestinian organisation made noise in order to gain [publicity]. I haven’t changed one minute of my schedule because of this threat.” He looks us dead in the face, and we decide to park any attempt to point out that the AOHR is actually an Egyptian organisation. “Even if I am arrested, I have a good answer for everything,” he says with a degree of finality. 

Perhaps my relief that we are currently not being pummelled by one of his hulking bodyguards is obvious, because he thanks us for asking the question “in a very polite way”. He continues: “I hope people appreciate the way I respond. I enjoy [talking to] very friendly students and I ask them to ask me the toughest questions.”

“The impact of the IDF is something you can feel all over Israel. For the people who serve in it, it’s like an entrance ticket to Israeli society”

Stern seems unwaveringly confident: a certain aura surrounds him. Whether this stems from power or self-assurance is unclear, but it would be a struggle to compare him to the politicians of the UK. They lack his underlying grit and hardness: he is a man who has seen things.

Yet, as Stern explains to us, these characteristics are not necessarily confined solely to someone who was once the Major General in the IDF. “The impact of the IDF [is something] you can feel all over Israel,” he says, with a hint of pride. “For the people who serve in it, it’s like [an] entrance ticket to Israel society – people will ask you: ‘what did you do when you were a soldier?’”

Still, after we push him on the point, Stern – now a key figure in the Israeli centrist party Yesh Atid – admits that his time in the IDF has shaped his approach to politics, emphasising the self-discipline and motivation required in both roles.

He says that there remain differences, however. “In the army,” he notes, “you have your responsibilities and you have your friends.” A smile flickers briefly on his face. “There are different ethics being a politician. You cannot rely on your friends.”

Whether Stern has completely transformed from soldier to politician remains to be seen. Indeed, on occasion, he will say something that lays bare his past as a former serviceman. As he discusses the controversial Hannibal Directive  – which reportedly authorised Israeli troops to shoot at abductors of Israeli soldiers, even if it put their comrades at risk – he is unequivocal in his belief that “the life of your citizens is superior to the life of your soldiers”. Shrugging his shoulders almost nonchalantly, he dismisses our attempt to argue the contrary. In his view, “once you choose to become a combat soldier, you’ve decided you’re going to sacrifice yourself for your citizens.”

Stern is also unswervingly proud of the army he once fought for. “There is no other army across the world that behaves [with] a higher level of morality than we do,” he tells us. We interject, but he speaks over us curtly: “sometimes we make mistakes.” 

Even when we mention well-publicised examples of Israeli soldiers engaging in questionable behaviour, such as the case of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who shot dead a wounded Palestinian, he is quick to respond. “It’s very famous because it’s very rare,” he says, fixing us with a look that challenges us to disagree.

However, at times, Stern is very much a politician. He has a tendency to begin an answer to a question with the phrase “first of all”, and he easily turns questions on one topic into a discussion on another, invariably the one that he wants to talk about. Admirably, though, he rarely dodges a difficult question completely. He is unafraid to get to grips with controversial topics.

He is prepared to venture some thoughts on the death and destruction caused by the Israel–Palestinian conflict. Despite choosing his words carefully, he paradoxically seems to hold nothing back: “The Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Hamas bring the battlefield to their neighbourhood,” he tells us, arguing “Hamas don’t value life in the same way.”

We wonder if that kind of statement is an exaggeration which potentially jeopardises any progress towards peace. But Stern, perhaps ignoring my criticism slightly, is keen to highlight areas in which there have been successes between the two states. He notes an increasing realisation that “cooperating with all the relevant people, even the Palestinian authorities”, and “supply[ing] them with the information, equipment and support” is vital in the fight against terror. To Stern, there is clear value in having conversations and dialogue with both enemy and friend.

When we thank him for his frankness, he waves this away in characteristically pragmatic fashion. For him, these kinds of conversations are all about supporting Israeli “ambassadors” across the world. “I think it’s very important to not only meet those who are against us. I want to meet the people in our favour,” he tells us. “They can ask the toughest questions [on issues that have] made it difficult for them to be our ambassadors. And I want all to help them, to support them and to give them the answers they can use [when others ask].”

Following Stern’s mention of people’s conceptions of Israel around the world, we probe him for his thoughts on the new American president. At first, he is circumspect, describing Donald Trump as “America’s challenge, not ours”. Indeed, he reinforces this view as we discuss the two-state solution – the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved by creating an independent state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel – when he points out that “whether it’s President Trump or President Obama, at the end of the day, we have no other choice than the two-state solution”.

Yet for all our pressing, he is reluctant to talk any further about ‘The Donald’. Raising an eyebrow, almost in warning, he tells us that “I don’t want to encourage involvement from the outside”. To him, Israel “cannot rely on every country all over the world, only itself.” He elaborates: “I’m ready to understand the criticisms from [abroad], but only if they really understand our situation. Before they try to force us to take risks, they have to calculate who is on the other side and how [they can ensure] there is some change in [the Palestinian] administration.” And, he points out, “The two-state solution is not only about two states: we have borders with other countries, too.”

As a centrist, it is inevitable that Stern’s view will differ from that of the current right-wing Israeli Prime Minister. Indeed, unlike Benjamin Netanyahu, Stern believes that the two-state solution has to be supported. He advances “two main reasons” for his position, the first being democracy.

“Israel is such a strong democracy, not only because of our government and Parliament but also because the Supreme Court is part of the system”

“[The Israelis] are six million [people] and the Palestinians more than three million,” he begins. “So, if you want to have a Jewish State, you cannot give the Palestinian the right to vote. Because otherwise, you cannot ensure that, with the majority of 50 per cent, you will stay as a Jewish state forever.” He is disconcertingly blunt and I am somewhat taken aback at his degree of pragmatism: “at the end of the day, we are Jewish and they are not.” 

He is more philosophical as he describes the second reason. “We are a nation of Holocaust survivors, whether that be second, third or fourth generation,” he tells us. “And we have to ensure the Jewish people will have, forever, a Jewish state. A safe place to ensure ‘never again’.”

As our interview draws to a close, Stern seems to transform back to the proud and patriotic former soldier. He explains that “while Israel may have some problems, we have many more reasons to be proud of how we behave.” When we ask him to elaborate, he references a principle which, he tells us, is fundamental to life in the Jewish state and “comes from Auschwitz. You must never differentiate among people, no matter their religion, colour or sexual preference. Why? Because when we were in Birkenau Camp and watched what happened in Germany, we saw what happened [when you do].”

“Israel is a very strong democracy,” he continues. “Even while we sit here, there is a destruction of a settlement because of a decision of the Supreme Court. Israel is such a strong democracy, not only because of our government and Parliament but also because the Supreme Court is part of the system. It is not like in America with their ‘young and conservative’ judge,” he says with a slight smile. “All the institutions work together.”

Stern is adamant that the Western world can learn lessons from Israel. He picks up on our brief mention of the European refugee crisis, telling us the importance of defining a refugee as someone “who doesn’t have any other choice but to escape [their homeland]. Without Israel, he would be dead. So, first of all, you have to give him a shelter.” But for all his politician’s empathy – genuine or otherwise – Stern fails to break away from that pragmatism which seems to underscore his entire world view: “there is a limited amount of people you can let in, otherwise you will lose your independence and your identity”