JERUSALEM — That didn’t last very long.
President Biden avoided shaking hands upon landing in Israel on Wednesday, just as aides hinted he would, citing the rapidly spreading new coronavirus subvariant, and fist-bumped local leaders instead. But only minutes later, he evidently forgot and shook hands with two former prime ministers anyway.
Outsized attention was focused on what Mr. Biden would do, because his staff appeared to be laying the ground to make it possible for him to avoid a much more politically unhealthy handshake later in his trip with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Because of Covid, aides suggested, he might refrain from all handshakes during the four-day swing through the region, sparing him a photo that he would prefer to avoid.
Mr. Biden initially appeared to be going along with the idea after disembarking from Air Force One at Ben Gurion Airport. When Prime Minister Yair Lapid and other Israeli dignitaries reached their hands out, Mr. Biden surprised them by offering a fist bump instead. But he wore no mask and hardly minimized contact otherwise, cheerfully grabbing elbows and draping his arm over Mr. Lapid’s shoulder as if they were longtime friends.
Then, after the red-carpet speeches were over, the no-handshake memo seemed to slip Mr. Biden’s mind altogether as he was led to a waiting group of Israeli parliamentary leaders for a group photo. He reached out to shake hands first with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and then with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter getting an especially long and robust shake despite their past differences.
So much for the plan, if that was indeed the plan. Just hours earlier, White House officials flying with Mr. Biden to Jerusalem had emphasized the rise of the highly contagious Omicron subvariant known as BA.5 in suggesting that he might not shake hands.
“We’re in a phase of the pandemic now where we are seeking to reduce contact,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One. But Mr. Sullivan knew his boss and sought to avoid making hard predictions. “I can’t speak to every moment and every interaction and every movement,” he added. “That’s just a general principle we’re applying.”
Mr. Biden and his aides have been dreading the image of the president meeting with Prince Mohammed, who was deemed responsible for the brutal 2018 killing in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for The Washington Post who was living in the United States.
But even though Mr. Biden vowed as a candidate to punish Saudi Arabia by making the kingdom a “pariah,” the president decided that it was worth the political cost of traveling there this week to counter Chinese influence, press for additional oil production and encourage closer ties with Israel.
He is scheduled to fly to Jeddah on Friday and will meet that evening with King Salman and Prince Mohammed, as well as other ministers. On Saturday, he will meet with other Arab leaders gathering in Jeddah, both individually and collectively. But no encounter is more fraught than the one with Prince Mohammed.
Mr. Biden has been shaking plenty of hands in recent days, so a firm no-handshake policy would have been an abrupt change of practice. But the president’s coronavirus response team warned Americans on Tuesday to do more to protect themselves against the virus as a new wave of infections, re-infections and hospitalizations spreads across the United States.
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