President Joe Biden fist-bumped the Israeli delegation as he arrived Wednesday in Tel Aviv after the White House was forced to confirm Israeli media reports that said the U.S. president would limit shaking hands during his first trip to the Middle East.
The White House said it was an uptick in COVID cases – and not forthcoming interactions with the controversial Saudi crown prince – that triggered the decision to limit Biden shaking hands.
And so upon his arrival at the Ben Gurion Airport, Biden went down the line of Israel’s leaders – including President Isaac Herzog, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – and gave them each a fist pound, though Bennett got an additional shoulder rub.
‘This is both a historic visit and a deeply personal one,’ Lapid said at the arrival ceremony, where he spoke of the ‘need to renew a strong global coalition that will stop the Iranian nuclear problem.’
Biden said it was a an honor to visit the ‘independent Jewish state state of Israel,’ calling the U.S. relationship with the nation ‘deeper and stronger, in my view, than it’s ever been.’
‘We reaffirm the unshakable commitment to United States-Israel security, including partnering with Israel on the most cutting-edge defense systems in the world,’ Biden said.
He also reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution, though he admitted it ‘isn’t in the near term.’
After Biden’s remarks, the president became more handsy with the leaders, shaking Bennett’s hand and then gripping the hand of former Israeli Prime Minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu for several seconds.
President Joe Biden (right) arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel Wednesday and fist-bumped Israel’s leaders including President Isaac Herzon (left) and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center)
President Joe Biden (center) fistbumps with caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid (right) as President Isaac Herzog (left) looks on. The White House said Wednesday Biden would ‘reduce contact’ with people during his Middle East trip, due to COVID-19 variants
After the initial ceremony, President Joe Biden (right) got more handsy with Israeli leaders, including gripping the hand of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center)
President Joe Biden arrives in Tel Aviv, Israel on Wednesday
President Joe Biden (right) gave brief remarks as he landed in Israel Wednesday. He’s flanked by President Isaac Herzog (left) and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center)
President Joe Biden (center), Israeli President Isaac Herzog (left) and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (right) stand as the nation’s national athems are played Wednesday at an arrival ceremony at the Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv, Israel
Israeli former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of President Joe Biden Wednesday at Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, Israel
The Jerusalem Post reported Monday that the White House outlined a no handshake policy to Yair’s office pointing to an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
Earlier Wednesday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was asked why Biden wouldn’t be shaking hands after hosting two large-scale events at the White House on Monday and Tuesday.
‘I just think the simplest way for me to put it is is that we’re in a phase of the pandemic right now where we’re looking to increase masking and reduce contact to minimize spread,’ Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One.
Reporters on Air Force One were quick to point out that Biden may not want to be photographed shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
MBS – as he’s known – was implicated by American intelligence agencies in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Saudi national critical of the Saudi regime, who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre didn’t answer directly when asked to respond if the handshake policy was to prevent a friendly photo-op between Biden and MBS.
‘I wouldn’t say there’s a change. And here’s the thing, that’s why you’re asking me if he’s going to shake hands or not. We’re staying that we’re going to try and minimize contact as much as possible,’ she said. ‘But there are precautions we’re taking because this is up to his doctor.’
Biden arrived in Israel Wednesday, for his first trip as president and 10th overall – and then will head to Saudi Arabia Friday for a highly scrutinized meeting with Saudi and regional leaders.
President Joe Biden departs for the Middle East late Tuesday night
Former President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right). President Joe Biden is expected to meet ‘MBS,’ as he’s called, during his trip to Saudi Arabia Friday and Saturday. In advance of the trip, the White House pushed that Biden would be limiting handshakes due to COVID-19
President Joe Biden (right) hosted large-scale events at the White House all week, including Tuesday’s Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn
President Joe Biden shakes hands with guests Tuesday on the South Lawn
In Israel, Biden’s greetings with leaders were friendly and familiar.
‘When we met eight years ago when you were vice president you told me that if you had my hair you would be president of the U.S. and I told you that if I had your height I would be the prime minister of Israel,’ Lapid told the president.
Lapid will hold the prime minister position until Isreal’s elections in November.
‘You know I love you,’ Biden told Netanyanu, according to Israeli press – a sentiment he’s shared with the leader before.
At a briefing on Israel’s new Iron Dome and Iron Beam Air Defense Systems, Biden gave Defense Minister Benny Gantz a long handshake.
Afterward he’ll visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial where he’ll lay a wreath in a show of respect.
Biden will participate in a host of meetings while on the ground including with Lapid, Herzog, Netanyahu, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
There were questions about why Biden was meeting with Netanyahu, who is no longer in power, but represents the opposition party in the Israeli government.
President Joe Biden listens to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (center) as they tour Israel’s missile defense system at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday
President Joe Biden stands under Israel’s Iron Dome defense system on Wednesday after arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (center left) speaks with President Joe Biden (center ) and caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center right) during a tour of Israel’s Iron Dome at the Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday
‘The president believes it is very important to show engagement across the Israeli political spectrum because like United States, Israel is a democracy, where people have different points of view where you have leaders representing different points of view and he wants to engage with them,’ Sullivan said.
The president will also receive Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor and visit with US athletes taking part in the Maccabiah Games, which involve thousands of Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the globe.
Biden supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine – a stance he will reiterate during his time on the ground.
‘The president will make clear his long-standing commitment and his administration’s commitment to a two state solution, which he believes is the best path to ensure a viable democratic Jewish state of Israel and the Palestinian state where Palestinians can live in freedom and dignity,’ Sullivan said.
Among the agenda items Biden will push on his four-day trip: strengthen the ceasefire in Yemen, work to deepen Israeli relations with its Muslim neighbors, support the Palestinian people and coordinate on the threat posed by Iran.
Israeli officials have shown alarm at Iran’s growing fleet of drones. The Israeli military said this month it had intercepted four unarmed drones headed for an offshore gas rig.
It said the drones were Iranian-made and launched by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is backed by Tehran.
Israel hopes its news Iron Beam system will help counter the drone threat.
It’s still not operational but Biden will get a demonstration upon his arrival in Tel Aviv.
And the United States is concerned Russia is working with Iran to use drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – as weapons in its war with the Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Iran next week, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
Sullivan noted they have seen ‘evidence of engagement’ between Russia and Iran.
He said that the U.S. has not ‘seen evidence of delivery’ but has seen the increased engagement ‘between the two countries on this specific issue of large numbers of UAVs, including weapons enabled UAVs, for Russia to acquire from Iran.’
‘We think that this is of interest, to put it mildly, to the countries we will be visiting on this trip, because Russia, deepening an alliance with Iran to kill Ukrainians is something that the whole world should look at and see as a profound threat,’ Sullivan said.