White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced Wednesday that due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden would not be shaking hands with anyone during this week’s Middle East trip.
Not long afterwards, though, Biden met former Israeli Prime Ministar Bibi Netanyahu, and shook hands with him.
Sullivan had discussed the policy while addressing reporters aboard Air Force One prior to the president’s arrival in Israel, the first stop on the trip.
“I think just the simplest way for me to put it is that we’re in a phase of the pandemic right now where we’re looking to increase masking, reduce contact, to minimize spread,” Sullivan said.
While Sullivan acknowledged that “how exactly that plays out in any given interaction is something that we will see,” the general no-contact policy is a shift in protocol given that the president had participated in hand-shaking sessions with people at the White House during the past two days.
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Sullivan insisted, however, that the change “is not abnormal” because precautions are taken on overseas trips like the one Biden is taking. He did note that the president tested negative for COVID-19 prior to Wednesday morning’s flight.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later backed this up, stating that the decisions are made by Biden’s doctor. Citing the spread of the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants, she said “it is reasonable to take expect him to take additional precautions.”
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One reporter, referencing Biden shaking hands on the White House’s South Lawn, asked if the no-handshake precaution was a new change in policy and if it had anything to do with concerns over being seen shaking hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden is set to travel to Saudi Arabia from Israel later this week, and he will be seeing the crown prince and his father, King Salman.
“This is up to his doctor,” Jean-Pierre insisted, claiming that this is not an official change in policy, but just an effort “to minimize contact as much as possible.”
“We want to make sure that we’re taking those precautions to keep him safe and to keep all of us safe, and we just want to be very clear on that,” she added.
As he disembarked from Air Force One, Biden was greeted by several Israeli officials. While he did not shake hands with them, the president did fist bump nearly all of them and placed a hand on their shoulders while saying a few words to each.
After that, he and Netanyahu shook hands.