The White House said President Joe Biden would try to limit physical contact during his Middle East trip because of concern about rising COVID-19 cases — but the president swiftly reverted to his old-school, back-slapping ways after landing in Israel on Wednesday.
He doled out a few fist bumps after stepping off the plane but then threw an arm around Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and shook hands with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden, 79, began his first regional visit as president on Wednesday by landing at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, and he will fly directly to the Saudi city of Jeddah later this week.
The issue of contact is arising amid intense speculation about Biden’s upcoming meeting with leaders in Saudi Arabia and whether he will shake hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence officials said probably sanctioned the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident.
The ostensible COVID-19 rule could give Biden cover to avoid a potentially problematic image with the crown prince.
It remains to be seen how Biden would greet other Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders during his trip, which includes the summit in Saudi Arabia of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Later Wednesday in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims, Biden held hands and kissed the cheeks of survivors Rena Quint, 86, and Giselle Cycowicz, who is about 95.
“Did you see the president hug me?” Quint asked. “He asked permission to kiss me and he kept on holding my hand and we were told not to touch him.”
A new omicron variant, which is able to more easily evade immunity from vaccinations and previous infections, has revived concerns about the threat of the pandemic.
“We’re trying to minimize contact as much as possible where we can,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One with the president.
But such precautions did not appear to be in place on Tuesday before Biden left for the Middle East, when he mingled and shook hands with members of Congress at a White House picnic. And they appear unsupported by science, as COVID-19 is an airborne virus, not one transmitted by touch.
Biden is set to meet with Saudi King Salman and the crown prince when he flies to the kingdom on Friday. The highly anticipated meeting is being closely scrutinized as the White House looks to reset the US-Saudi relationship after a rocky start in the Biden presidency.
As a candidate, Biden had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” nation for its human rights record. The president last year also angered the Saudis by publicly releasing a US intelligence report that determined that the crown prince, who is often referred to by his initials MBS, likely approved the murder of Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the kingdom’s leadership, at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
His administration has stepped substantially away from that stance in recent months, as it lobbies Riyadh to pump more oil to reduce highly elevated prices of this commodity, a major factor in a recent surge in US inflation to 40-year highs.
But in the weeks ahead of Biden’s tour, the White House was coy about any direct interaction between the US president and the crown prince during the Saudi leg of his visit.
Images of Biden shaking MBS’ hand in Jeddah would likely draw intense media scrutiny.
Citing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One, “it’s reasonable to expect [Biden] to take some additional precautions.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s a change” in health protocols, she replied when asked if the measures were aimed at preventing a handshake with Prince Mohammed.
Separately, everyone traveling in the presidential entourage is required to be tested at least once daily, in addition to any host country protocols.
On Wednesday in Israel, Biden refrained from shaking hands with Israeli dignitaries who greeted him on the tarmac at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.
He did hold brief, but close and mask-less, face-to-face discussions with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, Lapid and alternate premier Naftali Bennett. They all exchanged fist bumps.
Biden shook hands with Netanyahu, the current opposition leader, during their greeting at the airport.
Netanyahu had a fraught relationship with former US president Barack Obama’s administration, in which Biden served as vice president, amid a bitter dispute over how to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
According to Netanyahu’s office, Biden told the ex-premier: “You know I love you,” as they met on Wednesday.
Biden, known for his warmth, was also seen shaking hands during an event with lawmakers at the White House just ahead of his trip.
The president’s prior overseas trips — including a visit to Europe last fall during the surge in cases caused by the delta variant — did not include attempts to curtail Biden’s handshakes.