A tale of two greetings: deciphering Biden’s hand-to-hand diplomacy in the Middle East

Last Wednesday, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan informed reporters traveling with Joe Biden in the Middle East that the president would not shake hands during his trip. The reason given was the recent increase in COVID-19. But in reality, the White House – which less than forty-eight hours earlier had gathered a large crowd to celebrate the passage of new gun control legislation – was spooked by the prospect of tightening the hand of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), the man accused of ordering the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

At first, Biden held up well, refusing to shake hands and punching Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog and other Israeli officials lined along the welcome mat (even though the Secretary of State State Antony Blinken amusingly followed right behind Biden, warmly embracing many of those same officials). But a no-handshake rule is a hard sell for any politician as gregarious as Biden, and in the end he did it for about five minutes before reverting to his preference for handshakes and warm hugs.

But most interesting is who received one of the first emphatic and affectionate handshakes: former Israeli Prime Minister (and current opposition leader) Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Biden has shared a relationship for nearly four decades. The notoriously frosty relationship between Netanyahu and former President Barack Obama is well known; when that relationship was at its lowest, it was Biden whom Obama sent to meet with Netanyahu to make sure the lines of communication remained open and that American messages were delivered.

The two were “enemies” before the term existed. They were a pair of political heavyweights, ideologically out of sync but political kindred spirits who matured during a period of backslapping and behind-the-scenes politics – when political differences were eclipsed by personal friendships. When Netanyahu lost the 1999 Israeli elections to Ehud Barak, for example, Senator Biden was the only American politician to write to him. For politicians like Biden and Netanyahu, who rely on and even seek personal connection, such an act is not just an extension of kindness, but a meaningful gesture whose impact is downplayed by analysts to their risks and perils.

As Netanyahu sought to return to the prime minister’s office, the handshake also reflected a wide-eyed potential reality: they could soon be working together as equals again. After the hostility of the Obama era and the openly partisan embrace of the Trump era, their greeting on the tarmac, although brief, reflected a willingness to engage and work together, even if they are not always okay.

A very Saudi greeting

By the time Biden arrived in Jeddah, he had used all known forms of hand gestures in Israel: punches, handshakes, clasped hands, hands on shoulders and hugs. In the end, the only form not seen was a high five behind the back.

always in Jeddah, Biden was inevitably going to land a punch. The president and MBS greeted each other with a clear preference not to have to greet each other. Symbolically, it didn’t sit well with anyone on the American side: Critics from human rights organizations were furious that Biden could share such a ‘brother-like’ greeting with the man who ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Those backing closer US-Saudi relations rolled their eyes in acknowledging that MBS would almost certainly take that as a personal insult.

Because symbols are important in international diplomacy, MBS – most likely aware that Biden wouldn’t offer a more conventional and formal greeting – pre-retaliated. He personally greeted everyone else Gulf Coordination Council summit attendees along with three neighboring nations (GCC+3) at the airport but refused to welcome Biden there, instead sending the governor of Mecca and the Saudi ambassador to the United States. United to replace him. This decision was not so much an affront as a reflection of the current nature of the relationship. It’s unclear whether MBS originally planned to meet Biden at the airport; but once the president’s team announced he would not be shaking hands, any chance of MBS heading to the airport for just a conjoined greeting evaporated.

Biden and MBS will never be personally close and hostilities will persist. But the president didn’t go to Saudi Arabia in search of a best friend — he went to fundamentally reset and improve the relationship on a functional level, recognizing the benefits associated with strong US-Saudi ties. Unlike Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed, who has been invited by Biden to come to Washington, MBS will not be invited to Blair House anytime soon.

But the next time they meet, you can immediately tell if the relationship has improved. A handshake, a fist bump, or a quick hello will tell you everything you need to know.

Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Atlantic Councils Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former Deputy US National Intelligence Officer for the Near East.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other department or agency of the United States government.

Further reading

Image: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman punches US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Al Salman Palace, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS.

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