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.
It is increasingly apparent that our secretary of state is better equipped to be secretary of war in some faraway land in some faraway time when war was not the dangerous threat to world peace that it is today. Frankly, President Barack Obama had better choices to serve as his secretary of state, for instance, the more experienced Biden. Truth be known, Secretary Clinton has heated up hostilities elsewhere during her short tenure.
When she was recently in Argentina -- either from ignorance or after being manipulated by the Argentine president, Cristina Kirchner -- Clinton used the Argentines' name, "Malvinas," for the contested islands our British allies call "the Falklands," leaving the impression at a news conference that the United States is neutral in this dispute, a dispute that has cost nearly a thousand lives. The British press was furious. Honduran friends of the United States were equally furious when Hillary took the side of Hugo Chavez's stooge, deposed President Manuel Zelaya, in the controversy he created by illegally attempting to remain in office.
As for the controversy over those 1,600 housing units in northern Jerusalem, the fundamental problem is not Jewish settlements. Two Israeli prime ministers have offered comprehensive plans that would give the Palestinians virtually all of the West Bank and a division of Jerusalem, with an international jurisdiction governing the Jerusalem sites held holy by Christians, Jews and Muslims. The real problems are 1) acceptance of a Jewish state by the Palestinians and 2) resettlement of Palestinian refugees who have been abandoned by fellow Arabs since they lost their first war with the Jews in 1948.
Ironically, over the weekend, while Clinton was driving up tensions, a retired American investor, Michael Steinhardt, with vast experience in the region, published an imaginative plan in The Wall Street Journal for resettling the Palestinian refugees. It would involve an international coalition with the usual Western powers, along with China, Russia and prosperous Arab countries. They would establish a fund to create new communities on the West Bank and in Gaza, providing infrastructure and means of employment.
Members of the coalition would take in those refugees unable to be settled in Palestine. Some of this already has been done in North America and Europe. The Israelis would be asked, as Steinhardt wrote, "to take some (Palestinians), too -- giving priority to those seeking to reunite with family left behind." Moreover, "the Islamic nations would each be asked to take in small but significant populations of Palestinians, their co-religionists." Finally, Israel would offer an apology, "taking its share of responsibility for these people's displacement and hardship. And it would back up that apology by offering substantial, direct compensation to individuals for homes and land that have been lost."
I am sure Steinhardt would be happy to explain the whole plan to both Clinton and Netanyahu -- but no shouting.