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NEW DELHI - A mantra has been chanted back and forth between New Delhi and Jerusalem in recent days. It says: "India and Israel - two countries that share challenges and values, the only two democracies in their regions. Both countries face dictatorships that sponsor terror."

In India, commentators attribute vast significance to the visit paid to the country by Ariel Sharon, the first Israeli prime minister to come to the country. Some predict the trip will yield "fateful" consequences in the war on terror.

Israeli officials concur. Monday, as Sharon arrived in New Delhi, Israeli officials said that "the war on terror will definitely be at the center of the prime minister's agenda" on his ground-breaking trip.

An exclusive Haaretz interview conducted with India's Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a few hours before his Israeli counterpart landed in the country, shows that shared interests and values have their limits.

Asked whether he approves of Israel's assassinations policy, and whether his own country should adopt it, Vajpayee maintained a diplomatic silence. Pressed to respond to Israel's attempt last Saturday to kill Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, India's Prime Minister uttered a short sentence fraught with meaning. "Violence," Vajpayee remarked, "does not contribute to anything."

Vajpayee, 78, sat on his office chair dressed in traditional Indian clothing and listened attentively to Haaretz's questions. He closed his eyes and maintained a studied silence whenever troublesome questions were posed. On the other hand, he responded quickly and fully to less nettling queries, evincing a clear desire to steer the interview toward "desirable" areas.

Presumably, Prime Minister Vajpayee's terse response to the question about Israel's war on Hamas reflects public criticism in his country that has been stirred by Sharon's visit. The Indo-Arab Islamic Association, one of the Islamic organizations sponsored by the country's 140 million Muslims, held a meeting on Sunday of political delegates who oppose Sharon's visit. At the end of this gathering, participants released a statement declaring that Sharon's government "is responsible for the Jenin massacre and the deaths of many innocent Palestinians."

Sharon's policies, the declaration continues, are "incompatible with the doctrine of the father of our country, Mahatma Gandhi, who supported the Palestinians long before India's independence." Calling for Sharon to be indicted for war crimes, the statement concluded that Israel's prime minister is "not fit to visit the holy country of Buddha and Gandhi."

Asked in the interview to respond to these public attacks on Sharon, Vajpayee downplayed the criticism. "It's all politics," he stated, pointing out that while serving in office, a predecessor, former Indian prime minister Deve Gowda, had met with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that some politicians in India who had voiced opposition to the Sharon trip had themselves visited Israel.

Many media outlets in India chose Monday to ignore anti-Sharon criticism that has been aired in past days. They greeted Israel's prime minister on a festive note, bandying the slogan "Shalom, Sharon."

Vajpayee pointed in the interview to ways in which terror faced by India differs from the terror that strikes Israel. Yet he made a concerted effort to underscore points of commonality between the two countries. He described the current Sharon visit as a "turning point in bilateral relations" between the countries.

India established full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. What were the reasons for taking this decision then? Would it be fair to say that the Indian national movement had reservations about the Zionist movement?

"India recognized Israel in September 1950. We have had an Israeli Consulate in Mumbai for many decades. The establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 followed events widely recognized as a turning point in the history of the Middle East.