Why Biden’s handshakes are making headlines on his Middle East trip
When Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and other Israeli officials reached out their hands to President Biden upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday, Biden responded with fist bumps.
But after delivering remarks at the airport, Biden joined other Israeli dignitaries for a photo, shaking hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successor, Naftali Bennett.
The handshakes were perfectly ordinary for a normal diplomatic trip, but they quickly made headlines due to the White House’s messaging ahead of the visit.
His aides announced on Wednesday they were aiming to “reduce contact” during the trip because of the spread of COVID-19, an announcement that came as questions swirl over Biden’s controversial meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later in the trip.
The White House reportedly informed Lapid’s office that Biden would refrain from shaking hands due to the pandemic.
One reporter directly asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre if the policy was intended to avoid a photo op with Biden shaking hands with the Saudi crown prince, whom U.S. intelligence concluded ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“We are saying that we’re going to try to minimize contact as much as possible,” Jean-Pierre responded. “But also, there are precautions that we are taking because this is up to his doctor.”
The White House has kept in place mitigation measures such as regular COVID-19 testing for the president and those around him, but the plan raised eyebrows since Biden has been seen regularly shaking hands at public events in recent days.
During a wreath laying ceremony later on Wednesday at Yad Vashem — a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem — Biden also grasped the hands of two Holocaust survivors as he spoke with them.
It’s unclear whether handshakes will be part of the next leg of Biden’s trip.
Asked on Monday if Biden would be photographed shaking hands with the crown prince during the trip, Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, said the two would meet but said he was leaving the “precise modalities” to the trip organizers.
Two days later, as he announced Biden was reducing contact during the trip, Sullivan declined to say if that meant handshakes were off the table.
“I think just the simplest way for me to put it is that we’re in a phase of the pandemic right now where we’re looking to increase masking, reduce contact to minimize spread,” he said Wednesday. “That’s the approach we’re taking. How exactly that plays out in any given interaction is something that we will see unfold.”
Biden pledged during his presidential campaign that he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state after the killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for The Washington Post whom U.S. intelligence concluded was murdered at the orders of the Saudi crown prince.
The president has come under widespread criticism for his decision to visit Saudi Arabia, which Biden has recently defended as helping keep the United States “strong and secure.” The Washington Post’s publisher on Tuesday said the trip “erodes our moral authority.”
Saudi Arabia is also a key player in global oil supplies, though Biden has played down suggestions that reducing gas prices is an impetus for the trip.
Biden heads to Saudi Arabia on Friday.