Top Diplomats in Dust-up Over Madonna

By Ori Nir

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — In September 2004, Madonna came to Israel preaching tolerance and understanding. But the fallout from the pop diva’s visit may have served as the final straw in an increasingly bitter power struggle between Israel’s two most important diplomats.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has reportedly decided to drive Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, from his post. Both the Israeli and international press were screaming with headlines claiming that the decision was triggered by the failure of Ayalon’s personal assistant, Liran Peterzil, to arrange a meeting between Madonna and the foreign minister’s wife, Judy Nir Mozes Shalom.

Israeli newspapers quoted unnamed sources claiming that Nir Mozes Shalom, a colorful media celebrity and high-society fixture in Israel, had asked for the meeting with the pop diva and was livid when it didn’t happen. Israeli media reports said the foreign minister’s wife had become particularly upset after she saw Madonna posing for pictures with Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one of her husband’s political rivals.

Shortly after Madonna’s visit, the foreign ministry notified Ayalon that he would not be able to extend the expired contract of Peterzil, a local hire. Two weeks ago, Ayalon was directed to dismiss him.

In a memo to the director general of the foreign ministry, Ayalon claimed that he was told by the ministry’s deputy director general, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit , that the order to fire Peterzil came from Shalom’s wife. Ayalon sent a complaint to Attorney General Menny Mazuz, demanding an investigation and warning that the departure of Peterzil, “my right-hand man,” would mean that “the routine of my work will be irreparably damaged.” Mazuz relayed the complaint to the Civil Service commissioner. The foreign minister and his wife deny that they had anything to do with Peterzil’s firing.

The squabble could very well mean the end of Ayalon’s three-year term in Washington, though for now Sharon appears to be standing by him. Ayalon, a career diplomat who served as political advisor to the three previous prime ministers, was appointed in 2002 as a result of a compromise between Sharon and his then-foreign minister, Shimon Peres. During Ayalon’s stay here, he — like many of his predecessors — worked closely with the prime minister’s office, leaving the foreign minister frustrated and humiliated on the sidelines of Israel’s relationship with its chief foreign ally. Although Ayalon enjoys Sharon’s backing, it is within Shalom’s authority to recall an ambassador. Sources close to Shalom have told Israeli reporters that the foreign minister “has lost his confidence” in the ambassador, implying that he feels he cannot continue to work with Ayalon.

The undiplomatic mudslinging by Israel’s top diplomats triggered a wave of disgusted reactions in the media. Ma’ariv’s chief columnists, Amnon Dankner and Dan Margalit, co-wrote an article in which they argued that the scandal is one more instance of government sleaze. “The heads of this government ought to know that they are sinking the ship,” Dankner and Margalit wrote, “not in the blood of wars or in the agony of the economy but in an ocean of ugliness, dishonesty and corruption. They themselves — egotistical as they may be — will stand with us on the deck.”

In its Tuesday editorial, Ha’aretz called on those “who are supposed to serve as Israel’s official face to the world” to stop “wallowing in the mud.” It also shined a critical light on the seemingly endemic feuding within Israel’s diplomatic apparatus.

“Beyond the elements of gossip, which makes this conflict particularly mesmerizing to the Israeli and the global media, is an old quarrel between the foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office over the question of who owns diplomatic relations with the United States,” the newspaper observed. “Shalom is not the first foreign minister to discover after taking office that he is not in charge of Israel’s most important diplomatic channel; the prime minister and his advisers are.”

The newspaper concluded: “This is a good opportunity to put an end to the ongoing rancor that has Israeli diplomacy wallowing in the mud. The foreign minister has to recognize that the prime minister is in charge of relations with the United States.”

In the meantime, the feud shows no signs of dissipating.

Sources close to the Shaloms said that Ayalon is retaliating because his wife, Anne, was the target of an negative article in Yediot Aharonot that portrayed her as a heartless employer who mistreated domestic staff in the ambassador’s residence.

Yediot Aharonot is owned by Nir Mozes Shalom’s family.

The newspaper’s allegations have allegedly triggered a special investigation by the Civil Service Commission. The American-born Anne Ayalon, in an interview with Yediot Aharonot, boasted of being “very American” in her entertaining and housekeeping standards. She admitted that she often called her domestic staff “stupid.” The special investigator will focus on the allegedly over-budget financial expenses that she incurred while renovating the ambassador’s residence.

The Ayalons, who were married in Ohio, met at the Tel Aviv Hilton hotel, where Daniel was working as a security officer while attending Tel Aviv University.

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