Israel's Royal Couple Searches for Significance

After Silvan Shalom's failed presidential bid, he and wife Judy Nir-Mozes-Shalom are back to their daily routine.

Eyal Toueg

“Even though it was obvious and it’s common knowledge that, for the attorney-general, everybody is equal but some people are more equal than others, warm congrats to Sara-Bibi,” tweeted Judy, adding a link to the news story that Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein was closing the “Bibi-tours” case.

Thus, in one tweet (which was shorter in Hebrew), Judy Nir-Mozes-Shalom managed to skewer the attorney-general, who angered her with his handling of a sexual-harassment complaint against her husband Silvan Shalom, and the Netanyahus, too, who she’s mad at for failing to support Silvan in his presidential ambitions.

She also Facebooked the comment but deleted it after Shalom yelled at her, say associates, adding that Silvan is the only man she’s afraid of and, if not for him, she’d be posting far more extreme things.

Sylvan Shalom and Judy Nir-Mozes-Shalom are very well known. He’s a typical politician, seeking power (in his cronies’ argot: “to do well by the People of Israel,”) migrating from portfolio to portfolio but keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the top. She’s been working in media for 30 years, but her status is based on being born to a powerful family and owning 12% of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper group.

If their plan had panned out, they’d be reading this from the presidential residence in Jerusalem. But it didn’t and they’re back to routine: she to the gym, restaurants, Twitter and planning her next do; and him to cabinet meetings, running around the country and ending each day at a wedding, bar mitzvah or some event by some party member.

They’ve been together more than 20 years. He was born in Tunisia and came at age one to Be’er Sheva with his family; she’s an Israeli princess who grew up in luxury. He’s introverted; she’s the opposite. Yet their connection runs deep, partly due to each feeling deprived: he of being born poor, and she as the black sheep of the family. Both are close enough to the top to smell it – she in family hierarchy and he in politics, but neither ever got there, says an associate. The presidency was to be their bingo: they thought they’d be the First Couple of Israel. (Reuven Rivlin won the race.)

Judy is vigorous, opinionated and deeply involved in Silvan’s political life, advancing it in every way she can, says Roni Rimon, partner in a lobbying firm that used to work with Silvan’s Likud party. Nor would she have settled for being the “little woman” by the president’s side, Rimon adds.

Shalom is one of the most talented people in Israeli politics. He holds a law degree, a BA in economics, an MA in public policy and an accounting accreditation. He gets things done and has a phenomenal memory. Nir-Mozes-Shalom adds spice to his life, but at a price: her colorful but lightweight image can stain his. “A politician can’t let his surroundings get out of control, which is what happens with them,” says a political strategist: she may insist that her statements are her own, but go convince people that her tweet about the attorney-general doesn’t reflect his opinion.

Nir-Mozes-Shalom is into astrology, which annoys Shalom, but he doesn’t fight it, says a crony. But she’s more complex than the surface might suggest: “Beneath the smokescreen is a smart, savvy woman,” says a former Shalom adviser. “Go south, go north – she’s greeted with tremendous admiration everywhere. You wouldn’t believe how many people want to have their picture taken with her.”

Testimony to her acumen appears in a line she tweeted when businessman Hezi Bezalel, an outsider, wanted to launch a cellular company. Unable to secure a bank loan, Bezalel had to relinquish the operating license he’d been awarded. On May 27, Shalom Nir-Mozes tweeted: “Hezi Bezalel didn’t deposit the money as a cellular carrier. Funny, didn’t Bezalel know that if you’re not one of the 18 families, there’s no way to get bank financing in Israel? Whatever his financial situation?”

A less known facet of the couple is their sheer aggression. Political circles know Shalom as a difficult, capricious man prone to outbursts and grudges. His relations with the press are lousy. Nir-Mozes-Shalom is considered much nicer, but not in the eyes of certain media persons, who didn’t like her tweets with veiled hints when Silvan was suspected of harassment.

He advances, she pushes

Shalom, 56, won the monicker “Steve” when playing basketball in the ‘hood, after a new Maccabi Tel Aviv acquisition, Steve Chubin: they were similar in their aggressive games. He began as a student leader at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, then worked in journalism. He joined politics as an aide to former finance minister Yitzhak Moda’I, who appointed him director-general of the Infrastructure Ministry and later chairman of the vast Israel Electric Corp, at the tender age of 32.

Judy was born in Ramat Gan and swam in the waters of the elite and the entertainment world. After army service she spent half a year working for El Al’s ground staff then joined her family’s newspaper Yedioth as a features writer. She married Amiram Nir then, some years after his death in a mysterious helicopter accident in Mexico, she married Silvan, whom she quickly came to admire. “The more he matured in politics, the more she pushed him, mainly behind the scenes,” says a crony.

They married in 1993, a year after Shalom placed on the Likud list for Knesset. First they lived with her mother Paula, to whose home the political and business elite of Israel would make pilgrimages, a fact convenient for the young couple. During that time they came to know another power couple: Bibi and Sara Netanyahu.

For the last 20 years she’s had a show at 11 AM on Reshet Bet radio, though she makes mistakes in Hebrew. Some may squirm and claim impropriety, but the fact is the show proved popular. She’s done plenty of non-prime time television but recently had a chance at prime-time itself. For now though the show has been suspended because of cutbacks, and also because the broadcast company is owned by the Ofer family, which also owns the Israel Corporation and vast chemicals works – which are regulated by Silvan as energy minister. Sylvan recently wrote an opinion that the Ofers shouldn’t be taxed too much lest their workers suffer. Angry cronies argue that years ago Silvan Shalom recused himself from participating in votes involving the media.

Not the right stuff?

Judy's main dowry to Silvan was Yedioth, a powerful newspaper though it didn’t wind up serving him well. They feel the paper is insulting to him and Judy hasn’t spoken with its publisher, her brother Noni, for years. Noni closed her office in the building four years ago.

A former Yedioth editor claims that when Judy and Noni were getting along, the paper was nicer to Silvan.

A former journalist there says he found the attitude towards Silvan astonishing: some people were treated with kid gloves, but not him.

Nonetheless, Shalom’s political career was pretty successful and Nir-Mozes-Shalom could be counted on to stand by his side throughout, which had its complexities: “She needs management,” says a strategic adviser at one Likud campaign. Sometimes one handles a politician and sometimes one handles a politician and influential spouse: “Judy would look out for whether Silvan got the respect due him during a campaign, ”

In late 2000, when Ehud Barak quit and elections were called, the Likud was well positioned to win because of the Second Intifada. Ariel Sharon was party leader and Benjamin Netanyahu was on a break from politics, though polls had him trouncing Sharon in party primary elections. Shalom could have been a contender. Polls also showed that if Netanyahu stayed out, Shalom could have beat Sharon. But Shalom elected to stay out of the race. Many feel that was the worst decision he ever made.

Some say Shalom and Sharon reached a secret agreement that if he kept a low profile, Shalom would get a senior ministry. He did – the Finance Ministry. His cronies deny the story, and one adds: “My impression is that he has no charisma or leadership. He isn’t made of the stuff that stands at the top of the pyramid.”

Moreover, Shalom got the Finance Ministry at a low point for Israel. The dot.com bubble had burst and the Second Intifada was raging. Israel sank into recession. The ministry’s respected director-general, Avi Ben-Bassat, quit, later claiming it was because Shalom didn’t want to pursue reforms, including of the ports and banks. Yet, as minister, Shalom planned several changes that hurt the poor. His steps wound up being implemented by the man who replaced him – Netanyahu, who is attributed with saving Israel from recession. Shalom thinks his credit was stolen and many agree with him, though some say Shalosilvan

m didn’t have the kind of clout to pull off unpopular moves.

When Judy didn’t meet Madonna

In 2003 Shalom wanted the Finance Ministry again but Sharon said no. Shalom fumed and his cronies whispered about ethnic discrimination, but Shalom wound up with the Foreign Ministry, which was no small plum. Which is when this happened: Danny Ayalon, then-ambassador in Washington, claimed the Shaloms were pressing him to fire an aide because he’d failed to arrange for Nir-Mozes-Shalom to meet Madonna during her visit to Israel. The Shaloms denied the claim but the roiling continued for months, including attacks on Ayalon and his wife, which Ayalon suspected the Shaloms of orchestrating. Thus a nonevent spiraled into an international scandal and a Justice Ministry investigation, which decided Ayalon’s claims were baseless. He was rebuked by the Foreign Ministry.

None of that would have happened if Judy, who likes having her picture taken with celebs, hadn’t been involved, shrugs a strategist.

Meanwhile, as foreign minister, Shalom felt that prime ministerial aide Dov Weisglass had outflanked him and become Israel’s representative in Washington. Things reached a head during 2003 talks in Aqaba, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. President George Bush and Jordanian King Abdullah met – with Weisglass in the Israeli foreign minister’s seat. This led Shalom to hiss at him: “Who are you anyway? Just a pissant clerk. I am an elected official,” Yedioth reported.

Sharon didn’t think much of Shalom beyond his political clout, say associates.

Under Shalom, Israel’s relations with the Arab nations improved (including because of Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, which Shalom had opposed.) Shalom also worked hard at getting Egypt to release the Druze businessman Azzam Azzam, in jail for allegedly spying for Israel. But in 2005 he reached a crossroads, when Sharon left the Likud and suggested that Shalom, too, join the new Kadima party. Shalom, a Likudnik in his bones, didn’t leave; instead, he went into opposition with Netanyahu (and lost the primary to him.) Their contest did him no good: under Netanyahu as prime minister, Shalom was relegated to junior portfolios. Now he’s energy minister, which gives him more power thanks to Israel’s gas discoveries.

After his flopped presidential bid, many thought Shalom might quit politics, especially given his sour relations with his boss, Netanyahu. “He’s very frustrated,” says somebody who spoke with him recently. “He and Judy will never forgive Bibi and Sara for what happened” – failing to support Shalom’s presidential bid. “They take it personally.”

Friends say Nir-Mozes-Shalom and the kids would love Shalom to quit politics. He’s not about to, though. He won’t relent. “Sharon taught everybody to stay in the game. Silvan doesn’t know anything else. Politics is in his blood. That’s the life he knows.”