Israel's desire to improve relations with Moscow has dented Natan Sharansky's prospects of becoming U.N. ambassador and sparked a bitter political debate.

The celebrated human rights activist who arrived in Israel three years ago has been caught up in a dispute over diplomatic priorities.Sharansky, whose name was leaked last month by Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was hailed by supporters as the ideal choice to restore Israel's world image, battered by a 14-month Palestinian uprising.

But opponents feared his criticism of his native Soviet Union, where he was jailed for nine years as an alleged U.S. spy, might threaten the thaw between the Jewish state and the Soviet Union.

Despite being recognized as an ambassador-at-large for the Jewish people, the propects of the former Soviet dissident appear to be fading rapidly.

"I don't think it has completely disappeared, but people are not talking about it any more," a government official told Reuters. "Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Shamir is not seriously considering it."