Biden’s no-handshake policy avoids a grip with MBS — if he sticks to it

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JERUSALEM — President Biden spent Tuesday afternoon hugging and patting members of Congress on the back at a picnic at the White House. So it was unexpected when Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told Air Force One reporters Wednesday that the White House was trying to “reduce contact and increase masking” on Biden’s trip to the Middle East.

Although Covid-19 cases have increased in the United States in recent weeks, Biden has not changed his behavior during this stretch. But the new no-contact policy undeniably does one thing: It gives Biden a reason to skip shaking hands with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, when the two meet on Saturday.

Biden, old-school Israel supporter, comes at a difficult moment

The White House has informed Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office that Biden will not shake hands because of the corona virus, Israeli media reported. Biden initially followed the new protocols upon landing in Israel – eschewing handshakes for punches as he greeted top Israeli officials, including Lapid, who were waiting on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport.

Then Biden encountered former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the cheerful, back-slapping politicians did what they’ve done in the decades they’ve known each other, though often at odds on politics: shake hands — on active, full contact political pump.

Naftali Bennett, the youngest former prime minister, also received a handshake. Later it was Secretary of Defense Benny Gantz.

Very quickly it became clear that Biden – a famous full-contact politician – could not adhere to the new guidelines.

Part of Biden’s warm embrace comes from his deep familiarity with the country and its leaders. This trip marks Biden’s tenth visit to Israel.

“Any chance to return to this great land where the ancient roots of the Jewish people stretch back to Biblical times is a blessing,” the President said at the arrival ceremony. “Because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone-deep. It’s bone deep.”

Biden continued shaking hands as he visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and shook hands with the prime minister and other officials. The President also hugged Gita Cycowicz and Rena Quint, two Holocaust survivors, and leaned forward to hug the seated women and kiss them on the cheek.

“Did you see the President hug me?” Quint said after meeting the President. “He asked permission to kiss me and he continued to hold my hand and we were told not to touch him.”

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White House officials struggled to outline the contours and rationale for the new rules. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said the guidance had “nothing to do with brand new policy” and deflected questions about what US officials had told Israelis about the handshake.

“We say we will try to minimize contact as much as possible,” she told reporters. “But there are also precautions that we are taking because that is up to his doctor. B.A. 4, BA. 5 is actually increasing as we see. And we want to make sure we take those precautions to keep him and all of us safe.” She was referring to two new coronavirus subvariants that have been shown to be more resistant to immunization.

Biden has not contracted Covid-19 since the novel coronavirus emerged almost 2½ years ago. At 79, the vaccinated and refreshed president is still considered high-risk and White House officials continue to take precautions when interacting with him. Daily testing for aid workers close to the president is still required, as is wearing an N95 mask.

But now that Biden has flouted every order that he avoid physical contact during this trip, the question is whether the President will fist bump, shake hands or keep his distance when he and the Saudi Crown Prince are in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, sit together Friday as part of a larger gathering.

US intelligence officials have concluded that the Crown Prince, widely known by his initials MBS, ordered the 2018 assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.

Publicly, the president has tried to distance himself from any notion of getting back to business as usual with the crown prince, saying in June: “I will not be meeting with MBS.”

The White House has since confirmed the meeting, saying Biden will meet the crown prince as part of a bilateral meeting with Saudi King Salman and the country’s broader leadership team.

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Privately, Biden went even further and expressed deep reservations to helpers about meeting Mohammed. Now Biden must decide how to greet the de facto leader of a country he has vowed to form a “pariah” and a government he describes as having “very little social redemption value.”

Ultimately, any effort by the White House to keep Biden out of physical contact — whether to protect against the coronavirus or avoid bad optics — would prove challenging. Sullivan, who has known Biden and his penchant for physical contact for years, acknowledged the president might struggle to stick to the new guidance.

“We are in a phase of the pandemic right now where we are trying to increase masking and reduce contact to minimize the spread,” he said. “That’s the approach we’re taking. We’ll see exactly how that plays out in a specific interaction.”

Cleve Wootson Jr. in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/13/biden-handshake-mbs-crown-prince/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_politics Biden’s no-handshake policy avoids a grip with MBS — if he sticks to it

James Brien

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