"These children brought tears to my eyes," Mr Clinton said. "We have to find a way for both sets of children to get their lives back."
Israeli reaction was both angry and immediate. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, said: "There's a world of difference between the children of murderers and their victims."
Mr Clinton was comparing the fate of the children rather than the fathers, but this point was overlooked as Mr Netanyahu asked Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, if the US was "willing to release the terrorists who carried out the attack on the Twin Towers [World Trade Centre] in New York".
Mr Clinton probably did not realise the shock to Israelis of having the moral high ground taken away from them so publicly. Nahum Barnea, the Israeli commentator, wrote that for the first time, President Clinton "equated the sufferings, fears and aspirations of the Palestinians with the suffering, fears and aspirations of the Israelis".
He added that seeing the US President treat the struggle of the two peoples as morally equivalent hit a deeper nerve in Israel than withdrawal from the West Bank.
Mr Clinton met the four Palestinian children when he saw Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, in Gaza. He had met the Israeli children the previous day in Jerusalem.
Nihad Zakout, 11, a Palestinian whose father had killed an Israeli, told him: "I've been deprived of touching him for 10 years." The President replied: "Thank you for coming to see me. Your father would be very proud of you."
None of this was out of the ordinary. But in the next few hours President Clinton and his advisers decided that equating the plight of children deprived of parents as a result of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was a good way of illustrating his theme that each side had to recognise the sufferings of the other.
The explosion which followed showed that this is not going to happen soon.Reuse content