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What significance is a handshake?

On what occasion does a Historic Handshake take place? At a Milestone Meeting - where else? That is how this week's encounter between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was described, to the surprise of no one in the business. Handshakes have long had a symbolic meaning. Once it was a way of demonstrating that neither participant was about to draw a sword. Nothing is more natural today than to shake hands before having a conversation. And since dialogue is what the peace talks are all about, should not a handshake between Mr. Adams and Mr. Blair be applauded - with both hands?

Yet it has to be said that the precedents in the Historic Handshakes department are not encouraging. The most famous one recently was between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. Three years later there was a more muffled version between Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu. In the catastrophe which the Middle East peace process has become, these handshakes are now a subject for bitter irony: Rather than become a source of disillusion, they would have better been left unmade.The hands of politicians, as Dylan Thomas once observed, are not always beneficient. Signing a paper, they may fell a city; signing a treaty, they may bring locusts and famine. Perhaps all things considered, it would be sensible to pay less attention to their gestures and more to the results.