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US President Joe Biden, Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, stand in front of Israel's Iron Dome defence system during a tour at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Image Credit: AP

TEL AVIV: The White House said President Joe Biden would try to limit physical contact during his Middle East trip because of concern about rising COVID-19 cases — but the president swiftly reverted to his old-school, back-slapping ways after landing in Israel on Wednesday.

He doled out a few fist bumps after stepping off the plane but then threw an arm around Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and shook hands with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It remained to be seen how Biden would greet other Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders during his trip, which includes a summit in Saudi Arabia of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

A new omicron variant, which is able to more easily evade immunity from vaccinations and previous infections, has revived concerns about the threat of the pandemic.

“We’re trying to minimize contact as much as possible where we can,’’ White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One with the president.

But such precautions did not appear to be in place on Tuesday before Biden left for the Middle East, when he mingled and shook hands with members of Congress at a White House picnic.

Biden is set to meet with Saudi King Salman and the crown prince when he flies to the kingdom on Friday. The highly anticipated meeting is being closely scrutinised as the White House looks to reset the US-Saudi relationship after a rocky start in the Biden presidency.

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Biden threw an arm around Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and shook hands with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Image Credit: Reuters

Israeli media reported this week that the White House had told Lapid’s office that Biden would refrain from shaking hands during the visit due to the surge in COVID-19 infections in the US and Israel.

Jean-Pierre did not say whether such a message was conveyed to the Israelis.

Before Biden travels abroad, White House officials work with host nations to coordinate COVID-19 protocols, including testing for anyone expected to come in close contact with Biden. It’s not a perfect system, as Biden often decides to greet people in large crowds that may not have been universally tested. Separately, everyone travelling in the presidential entourage is required to be tested at least once daily, in addition to any host country protocols.

Biden greets Israeli PM Lapid. Image Credit: AP

The no-handshake guidance comes as the White House has emphasised that COVID-19 should not disrupt daily life due to the availability of tests and therapeutics. Biden’s prior overseas trips — including a visit to Europe last fall during the surge in cases caused by the delta variant — did not include attempts to curtail Biden’s handshakes.

Biden opened his first visit to the Mideast as president on Wednesday by declaring a “bone deep’’ bond between the United States and Israel and pledging to strengthen economic connections between the two countries going forward.

He did not mention one of the larger goals of his visit: Assuring uneasy Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials that he is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

“We have a full agenda over the next few days, because the relationship between Israel and the United States covers every issue that matters to our mutual future,’’ said Biden, who was making his 10th visit to Israel. “But we are united in our shared values and our shared vision.’’

Israeli officials said Iran’s quickly evolving nuclear programme is at the top of their agenda for talks with the US president. Biden made reviving the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018, a key priority as he entered office.

Indirect talks

But indirect talks for the US to reenter the deal have stalled as Iran has made rapid gains in developing its nuclear programme. That’s left the Biden administration increasingly pessimistic about resurrecting the deal, which placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog made clear that Iran’s nuclear programme will be a central focus in their discussions with Biden. And Herzog noted the “security challenges emanating directly from Iran and its proxies, threatening Israel and its neighbours and endangering our region.’’

“We will discuss the need to renew a strong global coalition that will stop the Iranian nuclear programme,’’ Lapid said

Biden was hit with tough US economic news as he arrived in Israel. Surging prices for gas, food and rent pushed US inflation to a new four-decade high in June of 9.1%, the government reported. Rising consumer prices are among factors contributing to Biden’s low public approval at home.

Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata, Senior Designer

The president received a briefing on the country’s “Iron Dome’’ and new “Iron Beam’’ missile defense system and was visiting the Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims later Wednesday. Besides meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, he’s slated to receive Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honour and visit with US athletes taking part in the Maccabiah Games, which involve thousands of Jewish and Israeli athletes from around the globe.

Biden said he will emphasise in talks with Israel and Palestinian leaders his continued support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he acknowledged that it likely wouldn’t be feasible “in the near term.’’

Biden is spending two days in Jerusalem for talks with Israeli leaders before meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in the West Bank.

Two state-solution best way

Biden added that a two state-solution is the best way to ensure a “future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.’’ Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that Biden would not offer any proposals during the trip aimed at restarting talks.

Biden, in a Washington Post op-ed published Saturday, laced into Trump for quitting the nuclear deal that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union also signed onto. But Biden also suggested that he’s still holding onto at least a sliver of hope that the Iranians will come back into compliance.

“My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do,’’ he wrote.

Israeli officials, who briefed reporters before Biden arrived in Israel, said the US and Israel would issue a broad-ranging “Jerusalem Declaration’’ on Thursday that will take a tough stance on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The declaration commits both countries to use “all elements of their national power against the Iranian nuclear threat,’’ according to an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the statement.

The official said the Israelis would stress to Biden their view that Iran has calculated “time is on their side’’ and is loath to give any concessions. The Biden administration’s last round of indirect negotiations with Iran in Doha, Qatar, late last month ended without success.

The White House has also been frustrated with repeated Iran-sponsored attacks on US troops based in Iraq, though the administration says the frequency of such attacks has dropped precipitously over the last two years. Tehran also sponsored the militant Houthis in a bloody war with the Saudis in Yemen. A UN-brokered ceasefire has been in place for more than four months, a fragile peace in a war that began in 2015.

Sullivan earlier this week said the administration believes Russia is turning to Iran to provide it with hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles, including weapons-capable drones, for use in its ongoing war in Ukraine. Sullivan said Wednesday that Iranians showing a willingness to assist Russia is something that should be of great concern to the Israelis, Saudis and other Gulf allies that Biden will be meeting with this week.

“We think that this is of interest, to put it mildly, to countries we will be visiting on this trip,’’ Sullivan said.

Biden heads to the Saudi port city of Jeddah on Friday to meet with King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and to attend a gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where Iran’s nuclear programme is on the agenda.

Biden meets with holocaust survivors Dr. Gita Cycowicz and Rena Quint during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Image Credit: Reuters

Biden later visited Israel’s national Holocaust memorial to pay his respects to the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany and collaborators during World War II.

During his stop at Yad Vashem, Biden rekindled the eternal flame of remembrance, laid a wreath and met with two Holocaust survivors — Rena Quint, 86, and Giselle Cycowicz, 95. A children’s choir sang a poem by Hannah Szenes, a female Jewish resistance fighter who was captured by the Nazis in Hungary and executed at the age of 23.

Biden, wearing a skullcap, participates in a wreath laying ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. Image Credit: AP

During the wreath laying, Biden held his hand over his heart.

Biden stood solemnly throughout the ceremony but grew animated during his chat with the two women. He listened closely while kneeling on one knee, held their hands, smiled and gave each woman a kiss.

As he wrapped the 10-minute meeting, he said to one of the women. “My mother would say, ‘God love you dear. God love you.’’’

Biden was joined by Lapid and Gantz, both of whom are children of Holocaust survivors.

Israel was established as a sanctuary for Jews in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. About 165,000 survivors live in Israel, and Yad Vashem is a standard stop for visiting world leaders.