Friday, April 08, 2005

Katsav to Khatami 'May peace be upon you' with a Handshake

Yahoo! News - Israel, Mideast Foes Shake Hands at Pope's Funeral: "Israel, Mideast Foes Shake Hands at Pope's Funeral

1 hour, 12 minutes ago World - Reuters


By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he shook hands with the leaders of Syria and Iran at Pope John Paul's funeral on Friday, when the Pontiff in death brought together Middle East foes as no man alive ever had.

Katsav's encounters with President Bashar Assad of Syria, formally at war with the Jewish state, and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami occurred when hundreds of international dignitaries crowded together at the Vatican funeral.

No immediate comment was available from Iran or Syria on the encounters, believed to be the first time an Israeli president had shaken hands with Syrian and Iranian leaders. It was unknown whether the handshakes were captured on film.

"I told him 'Good morning' and he shook my hand," Katsav, who holds a largely ceremonial post as head of state, told Israel's Channel 2 TV on his encounter with Assad. The Israeli and Syrian delegations had been seated next to each other.

Iranian-born Katsav said he spoke in his native Farsi to 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'," said Katsav.

As part of the Roman Catholic Church's Mass, people are invited to offer each other a sign of peace such as a handshake accompanied by words like "Peace be with you."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom later told CNN that the handshakes gave Israel a "glimmer of hope that something can change in the Middle East," but that peace between Israel and the two countries was still far off.

"LONG WAY TO GO"

"We have to remember that these leaders are very extreme and there is still a long way to go before we can reach a compromise. But sometimes things can start with one gesture," Shalom said.

Katsav said he later shook Assad's hand a second time during the funeral. "The second time ... was his initiative -- he extended his hand to me," Katsav said.

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

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

Israeli and Syrian negotiators last held peace talks in 2000 that foundered over the future of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

Syria has called repeatedly for the talks to resume. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Syrian forces must first pull out of Lebanon and stop supporting Lebanese guerrillas and Palestinian militants before Israel would consider negotiations.

Katsav has tried before to carve out a role in restarting Israeli-Syrian contacts. In 2004, he invited Assad to Jerusalem for talks, an offer Syria dismissed as a propaganda stunt.

Israel has accused Tehran of supporting anti-Israeli militants and has fiercely criticized Iran's nuclear program.

"It's hard to tell the significance of a handshake," an Israeli official said. "The question is whether there is going to be a change in these countries' policy, which is to destroy the Jewish state." (Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick)"

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