President Joe Biden began a very important trip to the Middle East on Wednesday, and his first stop was Israel.
But upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Biden notably did not shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and other officials.
Instead, Biden greeted them with fist bumps.
The move appeared to surprise Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who had extended his hand for a shake.
Ed O’Keefe, a senior White House and political correspondent for CBS News, tweeted afterward that Israeli officials had been warned that the president would not shake hands, citing “an abundance of caution for COVID.”
.@POTUS has arrived in Israel. He greeted extended hands with fist bumps — Israeli officials had been warned he likely wouldn’t shake hands out of an abundance of caution for COVID. But he’s also shoulder-to-shoulder with leaders and speaking directly to them sans mask.
— Ed O’Keefe (@edokeefe) July 13, 2022
“We’re going to minimize contact as much as possible,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had said, according to Bloomberg News senior White House reporter Jennifer Jacobs.
Biden, on tarmac after landing in Israel, did fist bumps with each leader instead of handshakes. “We’re going to minimize contact as much as possible” to keep Biden safe from coronavirus, @PressSec said. He tested negative before trip and will test again during the trip, she said pic.twitter.com/tUb0zkd9Sn
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) July 13, 2022
However, in his greetings on the tarmac with Israeli officials, Biden was very close to all of them and was not wearing a mask.
Claims that fist bumps were used to avoid COVID-19 also were undermined moments later when the president apparently forgot about it and shook hands with two former Israeli prime ministers, The New York Times reported.
The departure from the handshake stirred a lot of commentary about Biden’s presentation and motives.
The Times said the White House “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.”
While the whole trip to the Middle East is vital for the Biden administration’s relationship-building in the region, the most anticipated and important meeting is the one with Saudi Arabia.
“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,” the Times said.
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” The Washington Post reported.
This led to a cold shoulder from Saudi. Officials even declined U.S. requests to speak with the president in March, The Wall Street Journal reported.
That put the Biden administration in a tough spot as it tried to get Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to help with rising prices.
Bin Salman declined a request to speak to U.S. officials about the issue.
In addition to the oil question, the U.S. would like to have a good relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to have allies against Iran in the region. Tensions with the Islamic republic are building as it continues down the nuclear path.
So even though Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” the administration is seeking to have it as an important partner.
“Biden’s plan to visit the kingdom this week and to meet the crown prince goes a long way toward meeting Saudi Arabia’s desire for recognition as a major US partner,” the Post reported.
“And they seek greater assurances on regional security, particularly given fears that a nuclear-armed Iran is on the horizon,” it said.
In light of the already tense nature of the relationship, Biden’s meeting with the crown prince later this week is highly anticipated.
But now that Biden seems to be giving out fist bumps instead of handshakes, there is speculation about how this could play out during his meeting with Saudi officials.
Lahav Harkov of The Jerusalem Post noted in a tweet that Biden was setting precedent in his greetings with Israeli officials and suggested that will not go unnoticed by Saudi Arabian officials.
So after all this Biden handshake talk, he did a fistbump and then put his arm around Lapid. Not sure that helps with COVID or avoiding a later photo with MBS. pic.twitter.com/6ADgWcHLdf
— Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov) July 13, 2022
There is fear that Biden’s actions could make a bad impression before he even arrives in the kingdom.
“It appears the U.S. has graduated from rhetorical acrobatics over whether Biden will be meeting with MBS — which it is now conceding he will — to questions over handshakes,” tweeted Jason Brodsky, the policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran and a Middle East analyst.
“Truly absurd state of affairs here and risks making a bad impression before Biden even lands in KSA,” he said.
It appears the U.S. has graduated from rhetorical acrobatics over whether Biden will be meeting with MBS–which it is now conceding he will–to questions over handshakes. Truly absurd state of affairs here and risks making a bad impression before Biden even lands in KSA. https://t.co/O1ORZVK3xe
— Jason Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) July 13, 2022
The success of this trip and future relations in the Middle East ride on Biden’s ability to cement ties with bin Salman — and he is off to a rocky start.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.