A luxurious Jerusalem villa that has served as the residence of the consul general of Belgium since 1948 is at the center of a bitter legal dispute over unpaid rent, Israeli officials said Monday. The issue, which has drawn in government ministries, could turn into a diplomatic spat. The story begins in 1948, when the building known as the Salameh Villa in the city's upscale Talbieh neighborhood was declared an absentee property and transferred to control of the Israeli Custodian General. Considered one of the city's most beautiful structures, it had originally been built for an affluent Christian Arab contractor, Constantine Salameh, whose family apparently signed a rental agreement with the Belgian government around the time of the War of Independence. The officials said the family received rent for the property during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1983, the Salameh family sold the villa to the State of Israel. The sale was mediated by Israeli businessman David Sofer, who was granted an option to purchase the property, which he did last year. Multiple attempts by Sofer - and previously by the state - to collect rent from the Belgians went unanswered, the officials said. "They ignored us, as if we didn't exist," one official involved in the case said, noting that the Belgians were in one of Jerusalem's most desirable villas rent-free. Earlier this month, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann acceded to a request by Sofer that he be allowed to sue the Belgian government for nonpayment of rent. Friedmann's permission to bring suit, as well as to seek an eviction, was required under the terms of the sale to Sofer, the officials said. They added that by law, a property owner can claim seven years of back rent, which in this case amounts to around NIS 10 million. The property, which is surrounded by gardens, is valued at about $15 million. The Belgian Foreign Ministry has sent a letter to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni claiming that Belgium does not recognize Israel's claim to the villa, basing this on the fact that it had been declared absentee property 60 years ago. The letter said Belgium would be willing to discuss the issue after Israel reaches an accord with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. No such accord is on the horizon. Following consultations with the Justice Ministry, Livni responded that the real estate dispute was strictly a legal issue with no political ramifications, the officials said. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said Monday that the only reason the ministry had stepped in was because a foreign consulate was involved. The Belgian consulate general in Jerusalem declined comment on Monday.