Katsav Blasted Over Handshake With Khatami

Senior officials in Jerusalem criticized President Moshe Katsav over the weekend for shaking the hand of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at Pope John Paul II's funeral on Friday.

"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 of the officials asked. He said that Israel is working to isolate Iran for its threats to destroy Israel and efforts to manufacture nuclear arms.

According to the source, there was "no problem with shaking Syrian President Bashar Assad's hand."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not discussed the issue with Katsav and his aides said he has no intention of doing so.

Earlier, Katsav said he had shaken hands with Khatami and Assad at the funeral on Friday.

But Khatami vehemently denied this. "This claim is like other baseless claims made by the Zionist media in the past," he said. "Recognizing Israel means recognizing occupation and force," Khatami told the state-run Iranian media. "Morally and logically, we do not recognize the Zionist regime.

"As long as the Palestinian nation doesn't feel that its rights have been met, no peace plan will succeed, but we won't interfere," Khatami said.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he doubted that handshakes between President Katsav and the leaders of Syria and Iran constituted a diplomatic breakthrough. "I hope it can be a new beginning, certainly. But frankly, I doubt it," Shalom said in an interview with Italian daily La Stampa.

"Khatami and Assad are two extremists," he said. "It could only have happened thanks to the truly magnetic personality of John Paul II."

"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," said Shalom, who also attended the funeral.

Katsav told Channel 2 television Friday that his handshakes with Assad and Khatami were a matter of politeness and had no policy implications.

Katsav, who shook hands twice with Assad on Friday, said it was Assad who initiated the handshake.