TEL AVIV: Madonna brought her mix of provocative music and spirituality to the Holy Land with a concert Tuesday in front of 50,000 fans who had endured a 16-year wait since the pop icon's last gig in Israel.
Madonna is wrapping up her worldwide "Sticky & Sweet" tour with two concerts this week in a country whose place at the heart of the Mideast conflict has made it more of a magnet for diplomats than big-name performers.
Madonna took the stage about a half hour late Tuesday night, opening with her 2008 single, "Candy Shop" and moving through a tightly choreographed performance that included a series of colorful costumes beginning with a skimpy, black body suit with fishnet stockings and knee-high boots and range of hits, new and old.
"I shouldn't have stayed so long away," she told the adoring crowd midway through the show, as she broke away from the script to express her affection for the country.
"Every time I come here, I get so supercharged with energy," she said. "I truly believe that Israel is the energy center of the world. And I also believe that if we can all live together in harmony in this place, then we can live in peace all over the world."
The 51-year-old entertainer has long claimed a special bond with the Jewish state.
She's been dabbling in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, for more than a decade and has taken on a Hebrew name, Esther. She's come on private pilgrimages in recent years. She has visited the Jewish holy site at the Western Wall in Jerusalem since arriving in Israel on Sunday.
During a rousing finale of Give it 2 Me, Madonna wrapped an Israeli flag around herself and paraded around the stage.
Madonna was scheduled to perform again on Wednesday at Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park, the same outdoor site as Tuesday's show.
"One of the reasons she attracts such large crowds is that she has a special connection to Israel," said Chen Shasha, a 24-year-old law student attending the concert. "Israelis appreciate the fact that someone appreciates them and approaches them and is willing to look into things such as Kabbalah."
Israeli radio stations played Madonna songs through the day Tuesday, and recorded Madonna tunes greeted concertgoers as they lined up to enter the concert grounds. On Israel's Army Radio, a DJ interrupted a song briefly to quip that "tonight, Aunt Esther is playing at Hayarkon Park."
Late Monday, the pop diva dined with Israel's moderate parliamentary opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, at Madonna's request, Livni spokesman Gil Messing said. Her main political rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will receive Madonna at his Jerusalem residence on Friday.
Madonna last performed in Israel in 1993 but came on private pilgrimages in 2004 and 2007 along with other Kabbalah devotees.
Her previous two stops on the current tour, in Romania and Bulgaria, were marred by controversy.
In Bulgaria, Orthodox Church officials accused the singer of showing disrespect for Christianity. In Romania, she was booed during her concert for criticizing widespread discrimination against eastern Europe's Gypsies, also known as Roma.
In Israel, some rabbis have criticized her involvement in Kabbalah. Madonna was raised a Roman Catholic. She wrote in an article for an Israeli newspaper last month that the study of Kabbalah helped her understand life better.
Jewish tradition holds that Kabbalah is so complicated and so easily misunderstood that students may only begin to approach it with a strong background in Jewish law and only after age 40.
Still, Madonna's fans are happy she's in Israel. Her first show sold out quickly, and a second was added.
After years of concerns over political tensions and violence, more world artists are performing to Israel.
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney performed a year ago, but he drew criticism from Palestinians who said his concert amounted to support for Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
David Brinn, a music critic for The Jerusalem Post, said Madonna's performances are a sign that Israel is becoming more attractive as a concert venue. The Pet Shop Boys played Israel in July, pop sensation Lady Gaga was here last month, the rock band Faith No More is playing Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, and the iconic songwriter Leonard Cohen is to perform later this month.
"For a long time, it was security-related, and artists and managers didn't want to take a chance," he said of the dry spell in concerts. "They realized it is safe in comparison to other countries, and it is viable for artists to come here."