Biden Approves ‘No Handshake’ Covid Policy, But Not For Long


JERUSALEM — It didn’t take long.

President Biden avoided shaking hands when landing in Israel on Wednesday, just as aides hinted he would, citing the rapidly spreading new Covid-19 subvariant, and instead slammed fists at local leaders . But just minutes later, he apparently forgot and shook hands with two former prime ministers anyway.

Inordinate attention was focused on what Mr. Biden would do, as his staff appeared to be laying the groundwork to allow him to avoid a much more politically unhealthy handshake later in his journey with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Because of Covid, aides suggested, he might abstain from all handshakes during the four-day swing through the region, saving a photo he’d rather avoid.

Mr Biden initially seemed to agree with the idea after disembarking from Air Force One at Ben Gurion Airport. When Prime Minister Yair Lapid and other Israeli dignitaries reached out, Mr Biden surprised them by punching them instead. But wearing no mask and barely minimizing contact, he grabbed merrily by the elbows and put his arm over Mr. Lapid’s shoulder as if they were old friends.

Then, after the red carpet speeches ended, the no-handshake memo seemed to completely forget about Mr. Biden 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 receiving a particularly long and firm shake despite their previous disagreements.

So much for the plan, if indeed that was the plan. A few hours earlier, White House officials flying to Jerusalem with Mr. Biden had highlighted the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron subvariant, known as BA.5, by suggesting he might not shake hands.

“We are now in a phase of the pandemic where we are trying to reduce contact,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One. But Mr. Sullivan knew his boss and tried to avoid harsh predictions. “I can’t talk to every moment and every interaction and every movement,” he added. “That’s just a general principle that we apply.”

Biden and his associates feared the image of the president’s meeting with Prince Mohammed, who was believed to be responsible for the brutal 2018 murder in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for The Washington Post who lived in the United States. .

But although Biden as a candidate promised to punish Saudi Arabia by making the kingdom a “pariah,” the president decided it was worth the political cost to travel there this week to counter Chinese influence, insisting on additional oil production and encourage closer ties with Israel.

He is scheduled to fly to Jeddah on Friday and meet King Salman and Prince Mohammed that evening, as well as other ministers. On Saturday, he will meet other Arab leaders gathering in Jeddah, both individually and collectively. But no meeting is more fraught than that with Prince Mohammed.

Mr Biden has been shaking hands a lot in recent days, so a firm no-shaking 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 from the virus as another wave of infections, reinfections and hospitalizations spread across the United States.

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