Mid-East foes reach out in Rome
Israeli President Moshe Katsav has shaken hands with the presidents of Syria and Iran at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, Israeli radio reported.
The exchanges, between leaders of states that have hostile relations, are unprecedented, and usually carefully avoided at such occasions.
Iran and Syria do not recognise Israel. Syria and Israel are officially at war. Mr Katsav first shook hands with Syria's Bashar al-Assad as the funeral ceremonies began.
The Syrian president was seated one row behind Mr Katsav.
The report said Mr Assad later initiated a second handshake as the funeral ended.
Mr Katsav, who was born in Iran, is also reported to have exchanged words in his native Farsi with the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami.
Tens of thousands of people, including 200 world leaders, attended the burial of Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in Rome.
Mr Katsav told the website of the Israeli Maariv newspaper that 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," Mr Katsav said.
"During the prayers, according to the Christian tradition we exchanged handshakes... During this, it was the Syrian president who extended his hand to me and we again shook hands," Mr Katsav said.
The Iranian-born Mr Katsav also spoke briefly with Mr Khatami in Farsi.
Mr 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".
The two men are reported to have talked about Yazd, the city in central Iran where both were born.
According to reports, Mr Katsav also embraced Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Algeria and Israel do not have diplomatic relations.
Mr Katsav's spokeswoman, Hagit Cohen, called the exchanges historic, but said it was too early to say whether the handshakes would lead to any diplomatic breakthroughs.
"There is no doubt that this is a precedent, it was a historic moment and unique opportunity," Mr Cohen said.
But Mr Katsav himself played down the significance of the encounter.
"When heads of state meet, they always shake hands," he told Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper's online edition.
"I don't think we can really say the ice has been broken. We shouldn't attach too much importance to such politenesses."
Dignitaries were seated in alphabetical order, according to their countries. Mr Assad was seated in the row behind Mr Katsav. Mr Khatami was seated three seats to the left of the Israeli president.
Iran and Israel have not had relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran is viewed by Israel as its greatest threat because of Tehran's controversial nuclear programme.
Direct peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000.
Israel has recently rejected diplomatic overtures from Syria, insisting that Damascus withdraw what Israel sees as its support for Palestinian militant groups - though Mr Katsav did speak out, calling for Israel to take up the offer of talks.
Iran and Syria back Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group whose military wing still has occasional clashes with the Israeli army along the Lebanese-Israeli border.