The sudden resignation of Interior Minister Silvan Shalom in the shadow of a sexual assault scandal marks the possible conclusion of an Israeli political romantic fairy tale that was supposed to end up with a royal “happily ever after” in the prime minister’s residence or the president’s mansion.
Shalom has held public office for 23 years in a long list of positions, including the high ranking jobs of senior vice prime minister, foreign minister and finance minister, and has been constant presence in the top ranks of the Likud party. But in Israeli popular culture he is known primarily as half of the highest-profile power couple in the country.
Shalom and his wife Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes are so well-known that no last names are necessary when referring to them at home in Israel. Like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife are known as “Bibi and Sara,” they, too are simply called “Silvan and Judy.”
When making the fairytale analogy, there is a reversal of the traditional gender roles - Judy was the privileged member of a royal family and Shalom was the lowly-born, intelligent and hard-working Cinderella.
Shalom immigrated with his family from Tunisia when he was a year old to the desert city of Be’er Sheva. His father, a bank manager, was killed during a bungled robbery when his son was only six years old. After growing up fatherless in a tiny apartment, Shalom became a student leader while studying economics and accounting at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and began a career in journalism before turning to politics. He climbed the ladder of the Likud party rapidly, first as an aide to Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i and then, by age 30, as the chief executive of Israel's Energy Office, and soon afterwards the Chairman of the Israel Electric Corporation.
Shalom’s marriage to Nir-Mozes in 1993 was seen as the ultimate stamp on the ticket of his rise into the circles of wealth and power. His wife was born into wealth and connections as the daughter of publisher and managing editor of Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Noah Mozes and an heir to the family’s media group, of which she owns 12 percent.
She successfully parlayed her family connections into a diverse media career as a writer, radio and television personality, jet-setting philanthropist and in recent years, as a social media superstar with more than 95,000 followers on Twitter. Her first marriage was to Amiram Nir, a counter-terrorism adviser who was described as one of the masterminds behind the Iran-Contra deal.
His 1988 death in a plane crash in Mexico remains shrouded in mystery and has been a source of conspiracy theories for decades.
When Judy and Silvan married, the country was captivated by the sad and romantic idea that Shalom, who had been a fatherless child himself, was taking under his wing Nir-Mozes’ two children who had also lost their father - the couple had three more children. Shalom entered the Knesset a year before the marriage, but after pairing up with Nir-Mozes his rise became meteoric.
It wasn’t a coincidence. While he possessed ability and ambition, Judy’s high profile and networking skills, her connections with the national and international political and media elite, and notoriety with the masses - she referred to him affectionately and frequently on her radio and television shows - gave Silvan’s political career a continuous boost, and ensured that the politician was never out of the spotlight. Throughout the 90’s and the first years of the new century, the couple made no secret that the prize they had their eye on was the prime minister’s office.
Judy’s very public presence, and her clear enjoyment in rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, however, sometimes acted as a boomerang and a source of embarrassment, particularly since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, with its absence of filters between thought and publication.
One notable incident that grabbed headlines was in 2005 during Shalom’s stint as foreign minister, when Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador in Washington at the time,charged that he was being pressured by his boss to fire an aide who had failed to arrange a meeting between Nir-Mozes and Madonna while she was visiting Israel.
Another incident was her short-lived stint as chairperson of the Israeli branch of UNICEF, aborted after two months following protests over Facebook posts referring to Gazans during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, including the question “how is it possible to make peace with people who have it as part of their DNA to hate us?”
And just last summer, she made international headlines when she tweeted a racist joke about the U.S. president: “Do U know what Obama Coffee is? Black and weak.” She later apologized.
Throughout all of the gaffes and embarrassments, Shalom consistently stood by his wife publicly, telling The Marker that "when we got married I was already a member of Knesset. We both knew the deal: She knew she was marrying an MK and I knew I married an opinionated media person. We each lead our lives the way we feel is right. It is important that both of us remain independent. She can write whatever she wants."
Judy and Silvan made no secret of the fact that they blamed the country’s other power couple, Bibi and Sara, for his stalled political career. The bad blood between the two couples became even worse as the years passed, as the couple saw Netanyahu as responsible for Shalom’s banishment to junior ministerial positions and numerous petty humiliations - Netanyahu’s standard operating procedure when it comes to rivals for the Likud party crown.
In addition to perceived persecution by the Netanyahus, Shalom also hinted several times that there was a racial element to his failure to rise to the level he felt he deserved.
"Israel hasn't elected a single Mizrahi prime minister so far," he told Haaretz in 2008, referring to Jews like himself who hail from North Africa or the Middle East. "The facts speak for themselves. I am not saying we should elect a prime minister based on his ethnicity, but does it make sense that for 60 years we couldn’t find even one?”
Shalom maintains that the recent allegations of sexual assault are baseless, and said Sunday he was resigning to spare his family the negative attention caused by the scandal.
But should the mounting pile of allegations of sexual misconduct that triggered his resignation prove true, Shalom won’t be able to blame racism or Bibi and Sara for the dramatic flame-out of what was once a promising career boosted by his fairytale marriage.
The culprit will be there when he looks in the mirror.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now