Photo: Reuters
President Katsav (Archive photo)
Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Reconciliatory mood prevails in Rome - Assad
Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Exchange in Persian - Khatami
Photo: Reuters

'Not a diplomatic breakthrough'

Foreign minister says he doubts handshake between President Katsav, Syrian President Assad and Iranian leader Khatami is a diplomatic breakthrough, as one must not forget Middle East reality

Following President Moshe Katsav’s historic handshake with both Syrian and Iranian leaders Friday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he doubted the handshakes represent a diplomatic breakthrough, the Italian daily La Stampa reports. 


"I hope that it can be a new beginning, certainly. But frankly I doubt it," he said in an interview with the paper published Saturday. "(Iranian Leader Muhammad) Khatami and (Syrian President Bashar) Assad are two extremists. It could only have happened thanks to the truly magnetic personality of John Paul II."


However one must not forget the reality of the Middle East, he said.


“The Syrians have to stop terrorism coming from Lebanon and put an end to the occupation of that country," he said, adding that "the Iranians have to block their program of nuclear rearmament that directly threatens us."  


Unexpected meeting


Katsav shook hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad during a chance encounter between the two at Pope John Paul II’s funeral in Rome.


Katsav, who was born in Iran, also bumped into Iranian president Muhammad Khatami and exchanged several words with him in Persian.


The surprising encounter marks the first time a Syrian leader shakes hands with an Israeli president.


Assad initiates second handshake


Katsav, who noticed Assad was seated one row behind him at the ceremony, shook the Syrian president’s hand and greeted him. Assad accepted the gesture, shook Katsav’s hand, and also greeted him.


Later in the ceremony, guests were urged to demonstrate a gesture of reconciliation toward those around them. This time, Assad was the one to initiate a handshake with Katsav.


Upon his return to Israel Katsav said “the Syrian president sat in the chair behind me. When the ceremony commenced I shook his hand and bid him good morning.”


“Later he extended his hand to me and there was another handshake,” he said. “Iranian President Khatami sat to my left; when the ceremony ended we both left the cathedral and exchanged a few words in Persian.”


Katsav added, “When heads of state meet, everyone shakes hands.”


“I do not believe this constitutes a breaking of the ice, and I am not attributing the event with political significance; it was a courtesy meeting,” he said.


Iran deny reports


Syrian sources initially denied reports regarding the handshakes. 


The Israelis are operating according to “the more you lie, the more people will believe you” principle, the sources said.


But later, Syria’s official news agency confirmed the handshake, but said it was just a formality.


“The protocol required that participants shake hands as a formality…It had no political significance and does not represent a change in Syria’s position,” the agency quoted an official source as saying, adding Assad and Katsav did not exchange any words.


In addition, Iran's official IRNA news agency said that Khatami also denied reports he shook hands with Katsav.


"I strongly deny shaking hands, meeting and talking to the Israeli president," Khatami told the news agency. "This claim is like other baseless claims made by the Zionist media in the past." 


Algerian President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika also approached Katsav, hugged him, and shook his hand.


Katsav also spoke with Prince Charles and congratulated him on his upcoming wedding.


Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met his Moroccan counterpart Mohamed Ben Aissa during the event.


The Pope’s funeral ceremony was attended by hundreds of dignitaries from around the world, including Jewish and Muslim leaders. 


פרסום ראשון: 04.08.05, 15:27
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