Israeli president shakes hands with leaders of Syria, Iran at Pope's funeral

Monday, April 11, 2005

In controversial reporting by the Israeli media, Moshe Katsav, the President of Israel, reportedly shook hands with two Mideastern leaders, the Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Syrian President Bashar Assad, during his trip to the Pope's funeral on April 8. If true, it is a notable incident and the first time leaders of the two anti-Zionist nations of Iran and Syria have ever shaken hands with an Israeli leader.

Syria is still technically in a decades-old state of war with Israel since an end to it was never officially declared. Peace talks between the two countries broke down in March 2000 when Bashar Assad's father, Hafez Assad, rejected a peace proposal of former US President Bill Clinton. Since Hafez Assad's death in June 2000, peace talks have not resumed.

Iran has had no diplomatic relations with either Israel or the United States since their Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The three leaders were seated near each other while observing the funeral by a coincidence of their alphabetical listing. "The Syrian president sat in the chair behind me ... we exchanged smiles and shook hands," said Katsav, according to the website of Israel's Maariv newspaper.

Katsav also claims he later shook hands and spoke with Khatami and Assad during the traditional Christian service exchange of peace. Katsav and Khatami, both born in the Iranian city of Yazd, share the Persian Farsi language. Katsav reportedly said when leaving, "the Iranian president held his hand out to me. I shook his hand and greeted him in Farsi."

Upon Khatami's return to Iran, he denied the handshake ever occurred, saying “These allegations are false like all the other allegations made by the Israeli media and I have not had any meeting with a personality from the Zionist regime,” according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. "As reiterated time and again, we do not morally and logically recognize Israel which was created based on force and usurpation."

He continued with "[Iran] would not do anything against the Middle East peace plans ...but the world should know that as long as the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people are not recognized, these peace plans will not achieve anything'."

According to the Jerusalem Post, a member of Assad's entourage did confirm on Friday night that a handshake with Katsav occurred, and reported this quote by a Syrian Army Radio source saying "the gesture was an expression of manners and has no political significance." Katsav also told Israeli Channel 2 News on Friday evening that his handshakes with Assad and Khatami were merely polite gestures and had no implications for the relationships between their countries.