Did They or Didn´t They Shake Hands?

What happened when the President of Israel meets up with one of Israel's most implacable enemies at a funeral? That's the question for which no one seems to have a definitive answer.

, | updated: 17:36

Large state funerals, like the Pope’s funeral in Rome on April 8, bring together many world leaders - including bitter enemies who, under ordinary circumstances, would not be likely to be found within shouting distance of each other.

The Pope’s funeral caught Israel’s President Moshe Katzav close enough to the leaders of two of Israel’s most implacable enemies, Iran and Syria, to create an unprecedented situation for a spit-second diplomatic sensation-turned-controversy: a simple handshake.

According to Katzav, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami extended his hand to him - and he shook it. “The president of Iran extended his hand to me, I shook it and told him in Farsi (Persian), ‘May peace be upon you,’” Katzav said after the funeral was over.

But Khatami, often considered to be more liberal-minded than Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, reconsidered by the time he arrived back in Iran. He fervently denied shaking the hand of the leader of the "Zionist entity," and cited fabrications from the “Zionist regime."

“These allegations are false like other allegations made by Israeli media," the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Khatami as saying. “I have not had any meeting with anyone from the Zionist regime. Morally and logically, we do not recognize the Zionist regime."

Israeli officials also decried the purported handshake, saying that Katzav had no authority to shake the hand of a leader of a country whose aim it is to destroy the Jewish State. “Iran declares openly that it wants to liquidate Israel. What would we say if the President of the United States shook Khatami's hand?" one official said.

Katzav also shook the hand of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but this appeared to be a different issue. The Israeli official said there was “no problem shaking Assad’s hand.” Neither did Assad, apparently, find it a problem, as his state-controlled Syrian media has yet to come out with a statement denying it occurred.

Ironically, some commentators predicted that the Sharon-Bush meeting in Texas today would concentrate less on settlements and the Road Map, and more on common enemies of the United States and Israel - namely, Syria and Iran.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who also attended the Pope's funeral with his wife, took the handshake incidents in stride. “I hope that it can be a new beginning, certainly,” Shalom told the Italian daily La Stampa, "but frankly, I doubt it... Khatami and Assad are two extremists.”

Handshakes do not change the reality on the ground, Shalom said. “We cannot forget the reality: The Syrians have to stop terrorism emanating from Lebanon and put an end to the occupation of that country. The Iranians have to halt their nuclear rearmament program, which directly threatens us.”

Despite the enmity, the Iranian-born Katzav did find some common language with Khatami, at least in Farsi. According to Katzav, the surprise handshake turned into a little chat. The two reminisced about Yazd, a region in Iran. “The two of us were born in the same region in Iran, two years apart,” Katzav said.




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