Khatami denies, but Assad admits, Katsav handshake at Pope’s funeral

April 10, 2005


1. "Iranian president denies Israeli handshake. Says incident at pope's funeral did not take place" (MSNBC / AP, April 9, 2005)
2. "Khatami calls meeting with Israeli president fiction" (Tehran Times, April 9, 2005)
3. "Syria says handshake between Syrian, Israeli presidents has no political indication" (Chinese Xinhuanet news agency, April 9, 2005)
4. "Mideast Adversaries Touched by John Paul II" (Washington Post, April 7, 2005)



[Note by Tom Gross]

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has denied shaking hands with Israeli President Moshe Katsav at the pope's funeral on Friday, even though there were many witnesses to the handshake. This bare-faced lie by the Iranian regime again illustrates the way the Iranian leadership are content to mislead their citizens as well as their contempt for Israel.

It contrasts with the admission by the Syrian government spokesman that President Assad did shake hands with Katsav, although he claimed it has no political meaning.

Prince Charles also "by accident" shook hands with Robert Mugabe and did not deny it, neither did UK Foreign Secretary (Foreign Minister) Jack Straw when he shook hands with Mugabe.

Katsav told the Israeli press that his conversation with Katsav centered around Yazd, the central region of Iran where they both presidents grew up. They spoke in Farsi. There is a two year age difference between them. "The president of Iran extended his hand to me, I shook it and told him in Farsi, 'May peace be upon you,'" said Katsav.


I attach below reports from the Associated Press and from the (Iranian-state influenced) Tehran Times about the Katsav-Khatami handshake; and from the Chinese news agency about the Katsav-Assad handshake. (No Syrian leader has shaken hands publicly with an Israeli before. Assad is under strong political pressure at present from the Bush administration and from the people of Lebanon to moderate his regime.)

I also attach an article from the Washington Post that outlines Middle East reaction in general to the Pope's death. The Post mentions the Iranian response, which was discussed in my dispatches last week. The Post adds that "the Palestinian resistance group Islamic Jihad lamented his [the pope's] death as "a great loss" to the Palestinian cause."

(For Washington Post journalists, the Islamic Jihad is a resistance group. But for the Israeli – and some American – children who have had their limbs deliberately blown off by Islamic Jihad, or their parents murdered, it is a terror group.)

As the Islamic Jihad points out, the Vatican under the papacy of John Paul II, while being friendly in many ways to Jews, did indeed often adopt anti-Israeli positions, the most recent being the very strong denunciation by the pope of the security barrier that has saved the lives of so many Israelis.

-- Tom Gross




Iranian president denies Israeli handshake
Says incident at pope's funeral did not take place
The Associated Press
April 9, 2005

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami strongly denied shaking hands and chatting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav at Pope John Paul II’s funeral, state-run media reported Saturday.

Following the pope's funeral on Friday, Katsav said he shook hands and chatted briefly with Khatami and the leader of another archenemy of Israel, Bashar Assad of Syria. Syria on Friday confirmed the handshake between Assad and Katsav but played down its political significance.

But after returning to Iran, Khatami denied shaking Katsav’s hand.

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

No diplomatic breakthrough

Khatami was cited as saying his country "morally and logically" does not recognize Israel but will not interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, meanwhile, said he doubted the handshake could represent a diplomatic breakthrough.

"I hope that it can be a new beginning, certainly. But frankly I doubt it," Shalom said in an interview with Italian daily La Stampa published Saturday. "Khatami and Assad are two extremists. It could only have happened thanks to the truly magnetic personality of John Paul II."

Israeli media reported Friday that during the Pope's funeral ceremony, Khatami talked briefly with Katzav. Some suggested the exchange was a small breakthrough between the leaders of two nations that have had no relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran toppled the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The Iranian-born Katsav said he and Khatami 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," Katsav was quoted as saying.

"The president of Iran extended his hand to me, I shook it and told him in Farsi, 'May peace be upon you.'"

Iran and Israel have been bitter enemies for years – Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that must be wiped from the world map.

Iran is accused of supporting Lebanon's Shiite Muslim militant group, Hezbollah, which fought Israeli soldiers until they withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah continues to launch occasional attacks against Israeli troops in a disputed parcel of land on the southern Lebanese border.

Iran also hosts militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas, and President Bush recently accused Iran of being the "the world's primary state sponsor of terror."

Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has repeatedly said the destruction of Israel is the only way to solve the problems of the Middle East. But Iran’s reformers, including Khatami, avoid using such language.



Khatami calls meeting with Israeli president fiction
Tehran Times
April 9, 2005

President Mohammad Khatami here on Friday strongly denied Israeli media allegations that he had met with Israeli President Moshe Katzav during funeral procession for the world Catholic church leader Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. Upon return home, Khatami said, "These allegations are false like other allegations made by Israeli media and I have not had any meeting with anyone from the Zionist regime."

Israeli media reported on Friday that during the Pope's funeral ceremony, Khatami held brief talks with Katzav. Pointing to Iran's stances toward the Zionist regime, Khatami said, "As reiterated many times, we do not both morally and logically recognize Israel which was created on the basis of force and usurpation."

Khatami said that recognizing Israel means that occupation and force are rooted in legitimacy, adding, "To me, to recognize Israel would be an injustice to humankind.

"We hope the world would know why all peace plans have been unsuccessful. Is it not because of wrong nature of the peace plans?" asked Khatami.

The president added that there are many plans for settlement of the Middle East problem but all are unsuccessful because do not observe Palestinian nation's rights.

Iran's stance toward the Palestinian cause is a moral, philosophical and humanitarian one, said Khatami adding that lasting peace would be restored through recognizing Palestine's absolute rights and repatriation of people expelled from their homeland.

Khatami added he had held talks with European high-ranking officials and intellectuals on the future of Middle East and Iran's stance toward the nature of Zionist regime.

Responding to a question on achievements of his visits to Austria, France and Italy, Khatami said that he had conferred with the countries' officials on issues of mutual interests as well as Iran's stance on the nuclear technology.

Khatami said during the meetings he had once more highlighted peaceful use of nuclear technology and warned against depriving Iran of its inalienable rights.

The Iranian president added Iran was ready to continue negotiations within the framework of regulations, but the talks could not be long.

Expanding economic cooperation with Austria, France and Italy was among the other issues discussed with the countries' officials, Khatami said.

Iran has passed the stage of importing goods and machinery, he said, adding building up standards of knowledge and technology in all fields is among the country's top priorities.

Khatami held talks with French officials on energy and automaking giants and conferred with Austrian officials over transfer of gas to Europe and Austria.

Referring to his speech at UNESCO Conference on Dialogue among Civilizations, Khatami said he had underlined the necessity of global dialogue among civilizations.

On presence of Iran's high-ranking delegation at the Pope's funeral ceremony,

Khatami said the Pope was a spiritual personality in the world and was a harbinger of morality and spirituality, adding Pope always stressed peace, coexistence and campaign against the materialistic and spiritually destructive factors affecting life.

"The death of the Pope left drastic impact on global and Christian societies," Khatami said.

Upon his arrival in Tehran Friday, Khatami was welcomed by First-Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref and several other members of the cabinet.



Syria says handshake between Syrian, Israeli presidents has no political indication

April 9, 2005

The handshake between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Katsav, at Pope John Paul's funeral, is "a formality" and had no political indication, a Syrian official source said on Friday.

"The protocol required that participants shook hands as a formality ... it has no political indication and does not represent a change in Syria's position," the official SANA news agency quoted the source from the Information Ministry as saying.

"Mr. Katsav turned to President Bashar al-Assad who was standing amid a host of leaders and presidents and shook hands with him without exchanging any verbal phrases," the source said, adding that it was "an incidental case."

The Israeli media reported earlier in the day that the two presidents shook hands with each other twice at the funeral in Vatican City and al-Assad took the initiative to shake Katsav's hand for a second time.

"The Syrian president sat in the chair behind me ..., we exchanged smiles and shook hands," Katsav told the website of Israel's Maariv newspaper.

They shook hands for a second time during the funeral when guests were urged to demonstrate a gesture of goodwill toward those around them, the report said.

"This time it was the Syrian president who held out his hand tome," Katsav was quoted as saying.

The Israeli and Syrian delegations had been seated next to each other at the funeral.

Katsav also shook hands with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Khatami, and exchanged words, the report said.

Talks between arch foes Syria and Israel foundered in 2000 largely on the fate of the strategic Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Syria has made several overtures to the Jewish state for restarting peace negotiations, but was rebuffed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted that Syrian forces first pull out of Lebanon and stop supporting Lebanese guerrillas and Palestinian militants before Israel would consider negotiations.



Mideast Adversaries Touched by John Paul II
How the Pope Healed Rifts With Both Jews and Muslims
The Washington Post
April 7, 2005

One of Pope John Paul II's most striking accomplishments was his ability to transcend the conventional wisdom of war and politics that "the friend of my enemy is my enemy"

On Monday, Israel's most popular newspaper Yedioth Ahronot hailed John Paul II as "a true friend" of the Jewish state, the day after a spokesman for the Palestinian resistance group Islamic Jihad lamented his death as "a great loss" to the Palestinian cause.

The sworn enemies could both praise the pope because his appeal was neither rhetorical nor contradictory. International online commentary shows that the late pontiff gained respect with both Muslims and Jews by acknowledging the Catholic Church's historical offenses against both. At the same time he won admiration by expressing sympathy for the deepest insecurities of both peoples. The pope did not reconcile the differences between Palestinians and Jews, but he identified justice on both sides.

"Muslims Hail Pope's Efforts to Promote Ties," declared the lead headline in the government-supported Iran Daily.

"The Pope, the first to officially set foot in a mosque, during a visit to Syria in 2001, led a campaign over the past two decades to help turn conflict into cooperation between the world's 1.1 billion Catholics and 1.2 billion Muslims," reported the Tehran news site sympathetic to the country's reform movement.

The same tone prevailed in Bangladesh, where The Independent said that John Paul's May 2001 visit to a Syrian mosque "turned a page in inter-religious harmony."

"For the first time in history a Pope entered a mosque and called upon the Christians and Muslims to forgive each other for what occurred in the past. The setting, the vicinity of the tomb of Saladin, the hero of the crusade wars, lent a further significance to the Pope's call," said the newspaper.

John Paul II's similar gestures toward Jews were welcomed in Israel, according to Haaretz. "From his first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1979 to his visit to Israel in 2000 – during which he asked forgiveness at Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial] and put a note in the Western Wall – the 26 years of his papacy were full of efforts to effect a major reform" in the relationship between Jews and Christians, said the liberal daily.

"He was the first pope to visit a synagogue, when he prayed at the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986; in a speech in 1997 he said that Christians had failed during the Holocaust; during his visit to Israel, he apologized for the behavior of Christians who had caused the Jews to suffer; and he coined the term 'elder brothers' to describe the Jews."

At the same time, John Paul II gave voice to the political fears of both sides. For Muslims who worry the United States has targeted Islam since September 11, 2001, the pope's opposition to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was praised by the Daily Star in Bangladesh. Pakistan's Dawn said John Paul II "will be remembered for rejecting the idea of a new anti-Muslim crusade implied by President Bush in one of his early post-9/11 speeches."

For Palestinians who feel they do not get a fair hearing from Western leaders, the pontiff's embrace of their dream of nationhood was especially welcome, according to the Palestinian Media Center. The official online news outlet of the Palestinian National Authority recalled John Paul's visit to the Holy Land in March 2000 where he led Mass in Bethlehem.

"Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all the peoples of the region!" the Pope began, according to the PMC. "No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long. The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland, and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other people of this area," he said.

Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, a potent bloc in Palestinian politics, still remember his words, according to Wafa, the Palestinian news agency.

"His Holiness remarkable pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his support for the Palestinian right for self determination are source of proud and strength to us," the prisoners wrote in a condolence letter to the Vatican.

To be sure, John Paul II had critics. On Monday, Iran's hard-line press "denounced pope John Paul II for his efforts to reconcile with the Jewish people, saying Israel should be seen as an enemy of the church and not just the Islamic republic," according to IranMania, a London-based news site.

"Not only did the pope never condemn the crimes of the 'Zionist regime' in the territories, the Vatican officially recognised its existence," the fundamentalist Jomhuri Islami newspaper complained.

Likewise, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post lamented John Paul II's opposition to the Iraq war and his sympathy for the Palestinians by describing him as "The Pope Who Loved Too Much."

But most online observers in the Middle East are not holding John Paul's surplus of love against him.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.