WASHINGTON -- Historians someday will piece together precisely what happened in Jerusalem last week when Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel to encourage renewed negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinians. Of a sudden, an announcement that Israel was proceeding with the construction of a small number of residential units -- 1,600 in a section of Jerusalem with more than 400,000 inhabitants, roughly 181,500 being Jewish and 229,000 being Muslim -- was interpreted as a slap in the face to the United States. Historians will have to decide whether this was an Israeli insult to Washington. Or was it a low-level bureaucratic announcement, long in the works, that assumed undue significance owing to Biden's visit? Or were partisan forces within Israel or perhaps within the Obama administration manipulating the story? Other possibilities can be conjured with.
What strikes me immediately, however, is the dangerous furor that followed. It could have been avoided. As he was leaving Israel late Friday, March 12, the American vice president already had made his displeasure clear. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had apologized after insisting that the announcement had been made at a low level in his government and was not meant as a provocation. The good-natured American Biden appeared propitiated.
Then ka-pow! Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Netanyahu and raised hell for 43 minutes. Those of us who have followed her singular career know that Clinton's language can be dangerously unrestrained when she loses her temper, as has most recently been reported in "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime." I hope she did not use the kind of language she used on campaign staffers in her presidential campaign, much less the billingsgate she uses on her goatish husband. Whatever she said, tensions between the United States and Israel, according to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, reached an intensity not experienced in more than three decades. Within days of her phone call, young Palestinians were emboldened to violence throughout Jerusalem -- again, tension not experienced in years and, in this case, quite bloody tension.
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