Leaders shrug off Rome handshakes

Reports of handshakes among traditional Middle East enemies have caused a public stir, with officials either downplaying or denying that the contacts ever happened.

    Katsav (2nd row, L) and al-Asad (3rd row, C) shook hands

    In his death, Pope John Paul II brought together foes as no man alive ever had.


    At his funeral at the Vatican on Friday, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he had shaken hands and spoken in Farsi to Iran's President Muhammad Khatami, Israel's Channel Two television reported.


    The Israeli leader also shook hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, the station said on Friday.


    It would be the first time an Israeli president had shaken hands with Syrian and Iranian leaders.


    But on Saturday, the official Iranian news agency Irna reported that the contact never took place. 


    Syria's Information Ministry confirmed the handshake but downplayed its importance, and the Israeli leader's office also played down the exchanges.


    Ahmad al-Haj Ali, a Syrian journalist, told Aljazeera the shaking of hands between Syrian and Israeli Presidents had no particular meaning or reason. It just happened suddenly. 


    He added when Syria wanted to achieve peace or carry out talks it did so clearly and in public.


    Out of politeness


    Israeli President Katsav said on Friday his handshakes with al-Asad and Khatami were a matter of being polite and had no policy implications, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.


    "The Syrian president sat in the chair behind me ... we exchanged smiles and shook hands"

    Moshe Katsav,
    Israeli president

    Katsav reportedly shook hands with al-Asad twice on Friday.


    The two men were near each other throughout the procession because the Israeli and Syrian delegations were positioned next to one another.


    "The Syrian president sat in the chair behind me ... we exchanged smiles and shook hands," Katsav, who holds a largely ceremonial post as head of state, was quoted as telling the website of Israel's Maariv newspaper.


    He said he later shook al-Asad's hand a second time during the funeral, apparently when guests were urged to demonstrate a gesture of goodwill towards those around them.


    "This time it was the Syrian president who held out his hand to me," Katsav was quoted as saying.


    Syrian television initially denied that the two had shaken hands, but later on Friday the official Syrian news agency confirmed the handshake had taken place, calling it a formality with no political significance.


    Iranian denial


    Iranian-born Katsav also said he spoke at the Vatican funeral in his native Farsi with Khatami about their common city of birth. Iran officially seeks Israel's destruction.


    "The president of Iran extended his hand to me, I shook it and told him in Farsi 'may peace be upon you'," Katsav told the website.


    "I strongly deny shaking hands, meeting and talking to the Israeli president"

    Muhammad Khatami,
    Iranian president

    But Khatami has "strongly denied" the reports, the Irna reported on Saturday.


    "These allegations are false like all the other allegations (by the Israeli media) and I have not had any meeting with a personality from the Zionist regime," Khatami was quoted as saying.


    "I strongly deny shaking hands, meeting and talking to the Israeli president," Khatami told Irna after his return from Italy.


    Media reports said the men conversed about Yazd, the city in central Iran where both were born.


    Israel accuses Syria and Iran of backing Palestinian resistance groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has been a leading critic of Iran's nuclear programme.


    Katsav also reportedly embraced Algerian President Abd al-Aziz Butaflika, Israel Radio reported. Israel does not have relations with any of the above countries.


    No political significance


    Israel's largest-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth headlined its website report Historic encounter in Rome, but Katsav said the exchanges lacked any political significance.


    Khatami (R) denies shaking
    hands with the Israeli president

    "We are cultural people and say hello nicely and shake hands. It still doesn't mean the differences are gone."


    Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told CNN the handshakes gave Israel a "glimmer of hope that something can change in the Middle East".


    Also at the Vatican, Shalom met his Moroccan counterpart, Muhammad bin Isa, Haaretz said.


    Mugabe handshake

    Prince Charles is reported to have shaken hands with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at the funeral. 


    Buckingham Palace issued a statement saying it was not the prince's intention; he was just taken aback by the outstretched hand and shook it.

    Prince Charles was seated one place away from the Zimbabwean president during the funeral and was "caught by surprise" when Mugabe leaned over to greet him, the statement said.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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