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.