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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. Yesterday, 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 India prime minister Deve Gowda, had met with then Israeli 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 yesterday 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.

The interaction between the people of India and the Jewish Diaspora has a long history, dating back to the 1st century A.D. Two communities of the Jewish people in India even trace their roots to the 10 `lost tribes' of Israel. The story of the Jewish Diaspora in India has been uniformly positive. India is one of very few countries in the world that has never had a trace of anti-Semitism at any time in its history. The people of India were deeply anguished at the Holocaust visited upon the Jewish people during the Second World War. If there were any reservations about the Zionist Movement, they were about some of the means adopted by the movement.

"I believe India and Israel should focus on building bilateral relations on the basis of shared perspectives and commonalities between our two democracies. This has to be a forward-looking exercise, rather than harking back to perceptions of the past."

Many compare India's struggle against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism with Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism. Is this a valid comparison? Can your position on not negotiating with Pakistan until acts of terror cease be compared to Israel's decision not to implement the road map until Palestinian terrorism ceases?

"India has a consistent and well-known position on terrorism. We oppose all acts of terrorism, wherever they occur. We have repeatedly said that no cause can justify violence and destruction, particularly aimed at civilians.

"The circumstances under which we are tackling the menace of cross-border terrorism are different from those prevailing in the Middle East. But we do not really need to make comparisons.

"Our objective should be to firmly deal with terrorism and its sponsors, financiers and arms suppliers. At the same time, our doors should always be open for processes which would restore peace, development and progress to societies which have been devastated by terrorism over many generations.

"This has been our approach in India. We have said that for us to agree to a substantive dialogue on outstanding bilateral issues, Pakistan needs to show sincerity by ending cross-border terrorism. Meanwhile, we continue to make every effort to promote economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and people-to-people links, so that a conducive climate is created for a fruitful dialogue if and when stoppage of terrorism permits the commencement of the dialogues.

"It is well known that India welcomed the road map proposed by the Quartet, in the hope that it would guide the region away from violence and lead to the realization of the vision of two independent states of Israel and Palestine, coexisting in peace, within secure borders. It would, of course, be the actions of the governments and peoples of the region that would determine how best this road map can be implemented."

The visit of Prime Minister Sharon's is seen in Israel as an opportunity to deepen and expand bilateral cooperation. What are the priorities of bilateral cooperation for India? Is defense the only area of interest, or are there other equally important areas?

"You have correctly described the visit of Prime Minister Sharon as an opportunity for deepening and expanding bilateral cooperation. We see this first visit to India of a prime minister of Israel as a landmark in the history of our bilateral ties.

"India-Israel relations have acquired a multi-dimensional character, particularly over the last decade. While our defense cooperation is substantial and growing, we have also a lot to share with each other in agricultural sciences, in high technology including information technology, in peaceful applications of space technologies, etc. India has benefited from Israel's world famous expertise in agricultural technologies. India is now Israel's second biggest trade partner in Asia and the largest item of our trade is actually gems and jewelry. Tourism is another area with great potential, as is culture, since both our countries are host to some of mankind's greatest historic and cultural treasures.

"I am confident that the visit of Prime Minister Sharon will raise our bilateral relationship to an entirely new level of cooperation."

Israel cooperates in the field of defense with both China and India. There are those who feel that Israel could consider the possibility of defense cooperation with Pakistan. If such cooperation develops, who would India react?

"I do not want to address hypothetical questions or presume to advise another country on its cooperation with a third country."

What do you think are President Musharraf's hidden motivations when publicly declaring Pakistan's eventual readiness to recognize Israel?

"You have to address this question to President Musarraf."

What is your attitude towards an eventual establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Pakistan?

"Sovereign countries are free to decide where their respective national interests lie."

Pakistan claims to have developed weaponised nuclear capability, both for its national defense and for the Islamic nations. The existence of several extreme fundamentalists and terrorist organizations in Pakistan is well known. In the event that President Musharraf is replaced by an extremist regime, what would the consequences be for the world in general and for your region in particular?

"We have long known the reality of Pakistan's nuclear weapons capability, and the potenetial for its misuse. We have also been mindful of the depth to which fundamentalism and international terrorism have taken root in our neighborhood. Political instability and a deficit of democracy in our region should be of great concern, not just to us, but also to the international community. Obviously , the impact of any such instability in our region is the most direct on India."

It is often argued that the possibility of a nuclear war is ruled out since both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Would this theory of a balance of terror remain valid if extremists, who see the bomb as a means to eliminate "the enemies of God" were to gain control over the nuclear weapons?

"I do not want to speculate on nuclear theories or doomsday scenarios. I would only say that India developed its nuclear weapons in response to real concerns about its security environment and to maintain its strategic autonomy. We have acted most responsibly to minimize the possibility of a nuclear conflict in our region. Our nuclear doctrine is based on an explicit no-first-use policy. We have publicly stated our willingness to sign a no-first-use agreement regionally or internationally. Our nuclear deterrent is entirely defensive in nature and, most importantly, it is under firm civilian control."

In Israel, Iran is seen as a country governed by fundamentalists, who actively support Islamic terrorist groups while rapidly developing a nuclear capability. Why is India indifferent to the threat from such a regime?

"We view our relations with Iran, based on our own historical experiences. We have a tradition of friendly interactions with that country in a variety of fields, including trade and commerce, culture and energy. We believe that our cooperative, mutually beneficial relations with Iran are a factor of peace, stability and moderation in our region."

Over the past few years, the United States has established a physical presence in your region. It has bases in Pakistan now. How does India evaluate the American presence in this part of the world?

"Our relationship with the USA has undergone a qualitative transformation in recent years. A part of this process is regular and candid discussions on political and security issues of mutual concern in India's extended neighborhood, to harmonize our respective approaches, and to remain mindful of each other's interests. We share many common interests in the region, including combating terrorism, and in the evolution of stable, moderate, prosperous and democratic states in our extended neighborhood."

While Israel's efforts to export the Phalcon system to China were stopped, the veto was lifted in favor of India. Yet the U.S. blocked Indian efforts to obtain the Israeli Arrow missile system. How does India react to this?

"After the U.S. lifted sanctions on India in September 2001, our governments have been addressing this issue of liberalizing the regime for trade in high-technology defense systems. We have made some progress and are hopeful that our regular dialogue will clear up the remaining hurdles in this process."

In retrospect, how does India see the war in Iraq now, nearly six months after it started? How do you see the arguments put forward by the U.S. and UK in support of the war? What would India's reaction be if the Americans were to extend their Iraq policy to countries like Iran, Syria and even to North Korea?

"From the start, India had hoped the issue would be resolved peacefully through diplomatic efforts and that war would be avoided. We were therefore disappointed at the outbreak of war. That is behind us now. Iraq now faces enormous challenges, ranging from security to reconstruction to the peaceful restoration of sovereignty to its people. We hope the international community can come together to address those challenges effectively. There must be a central role for the UN in this endeavor. It would be unwise to see parallels of Iraq in other countries of hate region."

Would India be ready to send troops to assist the Americans in Iraq, if the U.S. obtains UN sanctions?

"We have made our position on this quite clear. Our decision on this would depend, inter alia, on factors involving our national security interests, India's connections with the region, the role of the United Nations in Iraq and the contours of the political process in that country."

At the present pace of population growth, India will soon surpass China to become the world's most populous country. For years, China has been implementing a very harsh policy of limiting its birth-rate, what is India's strategy in the matter?

"In actual fact, India was one of the first countries in the world to launch a national family planning program. Our population control strategy is based on our belief that durable change can only be achieved when people are themselves convinced of the need for it. Therefore our focus is on spreading literacy, education and awareness - particularly among women - improving maternal and neo-natal health care, and working for the empowerment of women. We still have a long way to go, but we have already achieved significant results in controlling population growth."

India's relations with Israel have developed enormously in the 12 years since diplomatic ties were established. At the same time, India has maintained its profound traditional friendship with the Arab world. Would this unique position inspire India to play a role as mediator in the Middle East conflict?

"India has consistently worked for a just and durable peace in the Middle East. We are happy to enjoy traditional ties of friendship with the Arab countries. Our cooperation with Israel has developed very satisfactorily. While we believe that this can contribute to relationships in the region, we do not believe that this means the role of a mediator."

[The Indian prime minister's office demanded that this interview be presented for its approval prior to publication. Part of the interview was edited by the prime minister's office, which requested a rewording of some of the questions that were considered to be inappropriately phrased.]