JERUSALEM – Lingering anger over White House access and a perceived snub by the pop icon Madonna (search) have sparked a political brawl pitting Israel's (search) respected ambassador to Washington against the nation's foreign minister and his wife.
The tension between the two top diplomats has simmered for months. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) has bristled against a traditional quirk in Israel's diplomatic hierarchy: All Israel's ambassadors report to him, except the envoy to Washington, who holds such a sensitive position he reports directly to the prime minister.
Shalom also was reportedly upset when the current ambassador, Danny Ayalon, failed to get him an invitation to the White House.
According to Israeli media, Ayalon's supporters say the White House prefers to deal directly with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — through Ayalon. They noted that the foreign minister has only shown lukewarm support for Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan, which the Bush administration strongly backs.
In recent days, the feud drew in Ayalon's wife, Anne, who was accused of mistreating her household staff, and Shalom's wife, Judy Nir-Moses, who was accused of scheming to fire Ayalon's assistant in a fit of pique over being denied a meeting with Madonna when the singer visited Israel last year.
"There is no doubt that once there is the view that the ambassador is tottering, that he no longer has the confidence of his superiors, his standing is harmed," Meir Rosen, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, told Israel's Channel Two TV. However, Sharon is still backing Ayalon, "so you can't say that he does not have support in the country," he said.
Before he was named ambassador, Ayalon served as one of Sharon's top advisers.
Shalom is one of three Likud Party leaders maneuvering to succeed Sharon, and the war with Ayalon appeared part of a campaign to publicly display his clout.
The public battle between the top diplomats began earlier this month when Yediot Ahronot, the newspaper owned by Nir-Moses' family, reported that Anne Ayalon verbally abused the staff at her official residence in Washington.
In response, Israel's civil service commissioner sent an investigator to Washington over the weekend to gather testimony from embassy workers, said spokesman Aryeh Grinblatt.
Ayalon, meanwhile, demanded Israel's attorney general investigate his claim that Shalom's wife tried to have his personal assistant fired after he failed to get her a meeting with Madonna.
"At that moment, Judy took out a contract on me. I called her, tried to explain what happened, but she said 'Steve (Shalom) and I will never speak to you again,' and slammed the phone down," the assistant, Liran Peterzil, was quoted as saying by Yediot.
The Foreign Ministry said Peterzil's position is being eliminated as part of general cost-cutting, and Nir Moses said she was not involved.
Nir-Moses is a major personality in Israel who, like Madonna, is instantly recognizable by her first name. She has her own TV talk show, "Judy," has been mercilessly satirized on Israel's most popular comedy program and is so renowned that even the Maariv daily, Yediot's rival, gives her publicity.
She denied Peterzil's accusations, telling Channel Two that it is "clear, completely clear" they were raised to detract attention from the investigation into Anne Ayalon.