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The Sharon government has done better than previous governments in avoiding problematic political appointments in the higher echelons of public service. But there is one scandal that has more to do with the fact that an appointment has not been made - the ambassador in Washington.

The current ambassador, David Ivry, ends his term on April 18, right after Israel's Independence Day, and on the eve of a visit to Washington by the prime minister. No replacement has been named and there are no signs an appointment will be announced in the near future.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are responsible for the problem, since they can't agree on a candidate. Apparently, each thinks the other will appoint someone who prefers personal loyalty over the good of the state.

It's unnecessary to explain the importance of what is considered the top posting in the Israeli foreign service, representing Israel to its most important ally, Israel's "antenna" in the White House, State Department and on Capitol Hill, the contact with the American Jewish community and the one responsible for Israel's public relations in America.

But the prime minister is not bothered. Maybe it's because he doesn't need an ambassador in Washington, since he already has one, for free, in his good friend Arye Genger, who does the work of an ambassador without any formal appointment.

Upon his election, Sharon told the White House that Genger, a businessman living in New York, would be his point man in the United States. Since then, Genger's role has only grown. At first he passed secret messages from Sharon by phone and he served as an adviser to the prime minister.

During Sharon's last visit to Washington, Genger attended Sharon's meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Last week, he sat in on Sharon's meeting with U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney. Diplomatic protocol calls for bringing the ambassador when such top-level VIPs come to Israel. Sharon invites his private emissary.

As far as the prime minister is concerned, there are only advantages to using Genger. Their personal loyalty to each other has already withstood some tough tests and is not in doubt. For Sharon, nothing could be finer: no leaks, or reports to the Foreign Ministry headed by Peres. Everything stays in the family. There aren't even any expenses to the state.

Sharon, of course, is ignoring the rules of proper government administration by employing Genger as his voluntary ambassador. Genger holds two passports, U.S. and Israeli, his business is mostly overseas, and he is, in effect, Israel's top representative in the U.S. He is not bound by any of the limits and responsibilities of public servants, like security clearances and committees to approve his appointment. His activities neutralize the embassy as they form no part of the "institutional memory" of the state.

None of which is fine and dandy, but much more important is that nobody knows whether he's doing a good job. For example, did he warn Sharon of the change in American policy, and suggest that Sharon avoid the unnecessary operation in the refugee camps and Ramallah? And if Genger fails, he is not subject to public and institutional criticism.

What does Genger get out of the relationship? Even if his motives are as purely patriotic as the driven snow, it is difficult to ignore the fact he also has interests. Like his business, for example, which has not been doing so well lately. The U.S. Securities Exchange Commission is investigating his company, Lumenis Ltd. (formerly known as ESC Medical Systems Ltd.) Moody's has reported that the company has had trouble repaying loans.

True, Genger is not the only businessman in recession, but not every businessman has free access to people like Rice, Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Will those connections help Genger when he faces the bankers and the investigating authorities in the U.S.? And even if he is as straight as an arrow, who is monitoring the separation between his political and his business activities?

Without an opposition, nobody is complaining about "acting ambassador" Genger. Particularly surprising is the way Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who so vigorously pursued private diplomats like Gilad Sher, Yossi Ginossar and Omri Sharon, responded to a question about Genger last week. "I don't know anything about it," the attorney-general reportedly said. But that does not free Rubinstein - and other government agencies - from responsibility for overseeing the political echelon.