Joe Biden was late for a very important date in Jerusalem. He had been invited to dinner with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but he was delayed by taking a long telephone call from Washington. He would have to deliver an American rebuke to the announcement that Israel would build 1,600 new houses for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. The timing of the announcement was boorish and insensitive. Dinner got cold, and so did the reception for Biden, who dutifully showed anger.
The episode spoiled dinner for everyone. The prime minister apologized for the timing of the announcement, not for the new houses. He was embarrassed and no doubt angry at the member of his coalition cabinet who made the announcement.
The incident exposed once more the messiness of democracy in Israel ("put five Jews in a room, and you'll get nine opinions"). Imperfect as it is, Israel nevertheless remains a tiny, messy, democratic oasis in a desert of harsh and abusive governments where democracy is usually something alien and unwanted.
The vice president is the highest-ranking member of the American administration to visit Israel since Barack Obama became president. He was embarrassed, too. But Obama's government seemed to indulge a little glee in administering the diplomatic thrashing of Benjamin Netanyahu, even after he apologized.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was once driven by public opinion to apologize for giving a nice hug to Suha Arafat after the terrorist's wife accused Israel of deliberately poisoning Palestinian children, wouldn't accept the apology. She said the announcement was "insulting" and sent a "deeply negative signal."
Sending "deeply negative signals" is a thriving industry in the Middle East, and the remarkable verbal abuse by the Obama administration sent a "deeply negative signal," as well, all across the Middle East. Obama the chief scold in this episode -cast himself as the big bad wolf threatening to blow down any house made of straw or wood, but something made of brick is a different story.
Iran, for instance, is busy behind a wall that so far looks as permanent and resistant as anything made of brick, working on the stuff of nuclear weapons. The Iranian scientists and the government employing them are sending "deeply negative signals," too.
So when Joe Biden spoke to the Israeli public the day after the furor, saying that the United States is determined to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, you couldn't blame the Israelis for taking the words with abundant kosher salt.
Jews in Israel, unlike Jews in this country, see Obama as the least sympathetic president to Israel's vulnerability since Jimmy Carter, who in 1980 was the first Democratic presidential candidate since James M. Cox to win less than 45 percent of the Jewish vote. Jews here ignored the implications of Obama having sat through those 20 years of anti-Semitic sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and voted overwhelmingly for the president. Who can tell what poisonous oaks grow from such acorns?
"We are shocked and stunned at the administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who usually saves such emphatic language for those who speak anti-Semitic remarks. We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States." Neither can I.
No one benefits from the raised level of rhetoric in this controversy, and Democrats, who have enough headaches ahead over the next few months, least of all. They'll need all the money and votes they can get in November, and Jews constitute a rich vein of resources.
A provocative interpretation of why the administration reacted to the initial insult with an insult of its own was offered by John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, which exerts a strong influence among American Jews. He suggests that the president, rather than Joe Biden, is the man who took the offending Israeli announcement personally.
"It was the president himself who decided the insult required his slapping Israel in the face with a white glove and threatening pistols at dawn," he writes. "This was an emotional response, in other words, in which the president felt free to indulge."
With the damage done, Hillary Clinton, perhaps dispatched by the president to patch things up, softened her own deeply negative signal and paid homage with happy talk about the unshakable bond between the United States and Israel, the shared values, commitment to freedom and more. All true, of course, but from her it sounded mostly of tarnish and brass. Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, put it better: "We cannot afford to unravel the friendship with the United States."