Covid or politics? Biden to avoid handshakes in Israel, Saudi Arabia

TEL AVIV: President of the United States Joe Biden will try to limit close contact, such as shaking hands, during his trips to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week as part of strengthened Covid-19 safeguards, White House officials said on Wednesday.

Biden might be able to avoid being pictured shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, later this week thanks to the apparent policy change.

When asked about rumors that Biden wouldn't be shaking hands during the trip, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said, "We're in a phase of the pandemic now where we're seeking to restrict contact and to promote masking... to minimize spread."

"I am unable to discuss each and every encounter, motion, and moment. That's basically sort of the overarching principle we're using, "Added he.

During his stop this week in Saudi Arabia, Biden, who previously referred to the Saudi government as a "pariah" for its role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist and political rival Jamal Khashoggi, is reluctantly meeting the crown prince, who US intelligence believes was responsible for the killing.

"Particularly in light of the Washington Post editorial criticizing the meeting with MbS, the White House is frantically attempting to avoid the photo of Biden shaking hands with the Crown Prince. COVID is a convenient justification, but it won't alter the reality of the meeting "Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution fellow for international affairs, said.

After spending a portion of the late afternoon and early evening shaking hands on the White House South Lawn at a congressional picnic, Biden left for Israel late on Tuesday.

Upon greeting the Israeli delegation, Biden gave them a fist bump. Later, while they stood shoulder to shoulder and had their arms around each other's waists, Biden held a close conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
President Obama shook hands with Benny Gantz, the defense minister, and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now the head of the opposition.

Tuesday, the White House recommended Americans over 50 receive COVID-19 immunization boosters as the quickly growing Omicron BA.5 subvariant spreads throughout the country.

Although Biden has recently tried to emphasize the meeting with a larger group of Gulf leaders, Biden will take part in a bilateral discussion with the Saudi monarch and crown prince on Friday.

There was no news conference planned for Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia, according to White House spokesman Karine Jean-Pierre.

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