JERUSALEM – Israeli President Moshe Katsav (search) said Friday that he shook hands and chatted briefly with the leaders of Israel's arch-enemies, Syria and Iran, during the funeral of Pope John Paul II (search), but cautioned against reading too much into the gestures.
"I don't think this has any diplomatic importance," he told Israel's Channel Two television. "We are cultured people and say hello nicely and shake hands, but I don't think our differences have disappeared," he told Israel's Channel 2 TV.
Nonetheless, the handshakes represented a small breakthrough. Peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 and relations have grown increasingly hostile since then, while Israel and Iran have had no relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (search) in Iran.
"There is no doubt that this is a precedent, it was a historic moment and unique opportunity," said Katsav's spokeswoman, Hagit Cohen.
Katsav told Israeli media that he shook hands twice with Syrian President Bashar Assad (search), who sat one row behind him during the service. Dignitaries were seated in alphabetical order, according to their countries.
Katsav, whose position is largely ceremonial, said the first handshake occurred when he turned to shake hands with the nearby Swiss leader. "The Syrian president also stood there. We exchanged smiles and shook hands," Katsav told the Web site of the Maariv daily.
He said a second handshake occurred during Christian prayers. "During this, it was the Syrian president who extended his hand to me and we again shook hands," he said.
Syrian officials in Damascus refused to comment. But the Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya said a member of Assad's delegation confirmed the handshake, though he denied any political meaning.
The first handshake came when Katsav offered his hand and introduced himself, the Syrian official told Al-Arabiya's correspondent covering the funeral in Rome. The second came as part of the Roman Catholic Mass rituals, when people shake hands with those to the right and left, front and behind, the official said.
Iranian officials, meanwhile, declined to comment after Katsav said he spoke briefly with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami (search) in Farsi.
The Iranian-born Katsav said that as he was leaving, "the Iranian president held his hand out to me. I shook his hand and greeted him in Farsi."
Katsav said the men conversed about Yazd, the region in central Iran where both men were born. "The two of us were born in the same region in Iran, two years apart," he told the TV.
Israel accuses Syria and Iran of backing Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has also been a leading critic of Iran's nuclear program.
Katsav was also embraced by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Cohen said. Israel does not have relations with any of the countries.
Cohen also said that the president used the opportunity to congratulate Britain's Prince Charles on his upcoming wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles on Saturday.