JERUSALEM — When President Biden walked off Air Force One on Wednesday, he did something he hasn't done in a while. Instead of shaking the hand of the first politician to greet him on the red carpet — Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid — he gave him a fist bump.
It's a switch that comes amid intense speculation about whether or not Biden will shake the hand of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman when he meets him on Friday.
The body language between U.S. presidents and their global counterparts is always closely watched for insights into their relationships. When Biden meets bin Salman, it will be a particularly fraught moment. U.S. intelligence assessed that bin Salman approved the 2018 operation that resulted in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden said afterward that he would make Saudi Arabia "the pariah that they are" and he's been under pressure from human rights groups over his decision to visit the kingdom.
Biden has since emphasized that there are broad U.S. national security interests in making the visit to Saudi Arabia. He wrote last week that is goal is to "reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that's been a strategic partner for 80 years." But the White House has been reluctant to say ahead of time whether Biden will be willing to be photographed greeting bin Salman, as is normally the custom on these kinds of visits.
Just before Biden landed in Tel Aviv, White House officials suggested the president would try to minimize direct contact, such as hand shakes, during his trip to the Middle East. They said it was an enhanced precaution for COVID-19, even though the virus is known to spread primarily through the air.
"We're in a phase of the pandemic now where we are seeking to reduce contact and to increase masking," Jake Sullivan told reporters on the plane.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre rejected the notion that it had anything to do with avoiding an enduring photograph of Biden shaking hands with bin Salman — or even that there was a change in practice.
"I wouldn't say there's a change," she told reporters. "We are saying that we're going to try to minimize contact as much as possible. But also, there are precautions that we are taking because this is up to his doctor," she said, noting a surge in cases related to the BA-5 variant of the virus.
Biden shook a lot of hands in the hours leading up to his trip
But it was a stark charge from the days leading up to Biden's Middle East trip. On Tuesday, just hours before he left, Biden worked a crowd of hundreds of lawmakers and their families on the lawn of the White House at the annual congressional picnic — shaking plenty of hands, giving hugs, and crowding in to take selfies.
The picnic followed another big White House event on Monday, where lawmakers and gun safety advocates gathered to mark the passage of gun safety legislation.
And last week, guests packed into the East Room of the White House, where Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people.
Biden may have a hard time stopping himself from shaking hands
Biden, who has been a politician for more than 50 years, makes no secret of his love of meeting leaders face to face, a style of personal diplomacy where handshakes are habitual.
As he walked the red carpet at the Tel Aviv airport, there were some backslaps and shoulder pats to go with the fist bumps. He draped his arm around Prime Minister Lapid.
Later, as he received a tour of defense equipment, Biden paused for a prolonged handshake with Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz.
And while paying his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, Biden greeted two survivors of the Holocaust, embracing them.
Earlier, Sullivan had warned reporters that when it comes to his boss's proclivity to shake hands, he was not making any firm rules.
"I can't speak to, you know, every moment and every interaction and every movement," he said aboard Air Force One. "That's just kind of the general principle we're applying here."