Madonna, the wives and the feud that grips Israeli politics

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The Independent Online

Israel has been gripped by a political scandal involving the Foreign Minister, the ambassador to Washington, two furious wives and Madonna.

Silvan Shalom, the Foreign Minister, and ambassador Danny Ayalon are waging a bitter vendetta in the pages of Tel Aviv tabloids after the embassy failed to arrange a meeting between Madonna and the minister's socialite wife when the pop diva visited Israel last year.

The feud hit the headlines yesterday after the ministry dismissed the ambassador's 24-year-old personal assistant, Liran Petersil, who failed to deliver the Madonna photo opportunity. The ministry says he was fired because his contract had expired. Embassy sources said it was an act of revenge, ordered by Mr Shalom.

The minister's wife, Judy, heiress to a media fortune, sports spiky red hair and tight miniskirts. Her first husband, Amiram Nir, a suspect in the Iran-Contra scandal, died in a plane crash. She is a high-profile talk-show hostess and makes no secret of her ambition to propel her husband, who immigrated as a child from Tunisia, into the prime minister's office.

Madonna, who came to Israel for a five-day festival of Jewish mysticism in a luxurious Tel Aviv hotel, refused to meet any politicians, including Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister. But she was pictured at a reception with Gideon Ezra, the tourism minister, and Ehud Olmert, Mr Sharon's deputy.

Israel's civil service commissioner has sent an investigator to Washington to look into complaints against the ambassador's wife, Anne, who is alleged to have waged a "reign of terror" on embassy domestic staff. She is said to have called them "stupid" and "retards". Once, staff testified, she ordered a pregnant maid to climb a ladder to clean a window, and made another employee bow before her because he had put a picture in the wrong place.

Mr Ayalon counter-complained to the attorney general, accusing the minister and his wife of interfering in embassy appointments. "It appears to me," he wrote, "that the source of the bizarre demand for dismissal is the Foreign Minister's bureau. Moreover, this is the demand of the Foreign Minister's wife."

The ambassador, a Foreign Ministry professional, was appointed by the Prime Minister, to whom he had been diplomatic adviser. Mr Ayalon is reputed to be one of the few Washington envoys who can pick up the phone and talk to Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, whenever he wants.

He tends to bypass the Foreign Ministry and report directly to Mr Sharon. The minister, like others in a similar situation before him, resents being left out of the loop.