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Will he or won't he? Watchful eyes are on Biden's handshakes on his Middle East trip

President Biden is welcomed at King Abdulaziz International Airport in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah. He was later greeted by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden is welcomed at King Abdulaziz International Airport in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah. He was later greeted by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

President Biden's love for the personal touch, dispensing hugs and handshakes, is under close scrutiny on his trip to the Middle East. Two encounters have become the focus of the interest in his handshakes: Biden's offer (declined) to shake an Israeli woman's hand, and how he handles his interaction with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden met the Saudi crown prince Friday

Biden's commitment to human rights is being scrutinized during his trip to Saudi Arabia, particularly his encounter with bin Salman, who the U.S. says approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, that ended with the gruesome killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018.

Bin Salman personally welcomed Biden to Al-Salam Palace on Friday — and the two shared a quick fist-bump that was captured by numerous photographers.

In doing so, Biden completed a departure from a position he campaigned on: that he would treat Saudi Arabia like a "pariah" because of its record of human rights abuses.

The president also followed the script the White House laid out earlier this week, saying that during the trip, Biden would refrain from handshakes. The policy, which the White House said was due to COVID-19, quickly raised questions about whether it was intended to provide a ready explanation for the U.S. president to avoid shaking the Saudi crown prince's hand.

"My views on Khashoggi have been made absolutely clear," Biden said on Thursday when a journalist asked about his upcoming meeting with bin Salman. "I have never been quiet about talking about human rights."

The reasons for the visit, Biden continued, are "much broader" – to bolster U.S. influence in the region and promote U.S. interests by meeting with the oil-rich kingdom's rulers. But, he added, he won't shy away from bringing up human rights issues.

A singer spurns Biden's open hand

The White House's fist-bump strategy came under immediate pressure in Israel, where Biden greeted old acquaintances with handshakes and hugged women who survived the Holocaust, even giving them a kiss on the cheek.

But on Thursday, Biden's attempt to greet Israeli singer Yuval Dayan after she performed for the presidential delegation created an awkward moment. The U.S. president was left empty-handed when he reached out to Dayan — who for religious reasons avoids physical contact with men.

Biden had immediately gestured to Dayan and fellow singer Ran Danker when they finished a duet of "Lu Yehi," or "Let It Be," moving to greet the pair. The U.S. leader quickly shook hands with Danker, but when he reached out to Dayan, she clasped her hands together and smiled at him, giving a slight bow. After a momentary pause, Biden withdrew his hand.

Dayan is shomeret negiya ("protect from touching"), a Jewish concept that requires her not to touch members of the opposite sex, even for handshakes, with few exceptions (such as for close family members).

Her refusal to shake Biden's hand was quickly discussed online; after the event, Dayan wrote on Instagram that she had worried about whether such an incident might arise, adding that she had told everyone involved in organizing Biden's visit that she was not open to the prospect of shaking hands with a man.

Dayan said she had not intended to offend or shame the American president, saying she was only trying to maintain her own values. Given the dilemma he faces in dealing with Saudi Arabia's crown prince, it's likely that Biden can relate.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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