NEW DELHI — With Prime Minister Sharon this week becoming the first Israeli leader to visit India, a mantra has been chanted back and forth in Jerusalem and New Delhi: “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 Sharon’s visit. Some predict the trip will yield “fateful” consequences in the war against terrorism. Israeli officials concur, saying that “the war on terror will definitely be at the center of the prime minister’s agenda” on his ground-breaking trip.
Still, a recent interview with Indian Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee suggests that shared interests and values have their limits. Vajpayee appeared to criticize Israel’s policy of assassinating militant Islamic leaders, expressed positive attitudes about Iran and raised concerns about the American intervention in Iraq.
Pressed to comment on Israel’s September 6 attempt to kill Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Indian prime minister uttered a short sentence: “Violence does not contribute to anything.”
During the recent interview, Vajpayee, 78, sat in his office chair dressed in traditional Indian clothing. He closed his eyes and maintained a studied silence whenever troublesome questions were posed. But he responded quickly and fully to less nettling queries, evincing a clear strategy of steering the interview toward “desirable” areas.
Vajpayee’s terse response to the question about the Israeli crackdown on Hamas appeared to reflect public criticism in his country that has been stirred by Sharon’s visit. The Indo-Arab Islamic Association, one of the organizations sponsored by the country’s 140 million Muslims, held a meeting Sunday of political delegates who oppose Sharon’s visit. Participants released a statement declaring that Sharon’s policies 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 with the claim that Israel’s prime minister is “not fit to visit the holy country of Buddha and Gandhi.”
Many media outlets in India chose to ignore the anti-Sharon criticism, greeting Israel’s prime minister on a festive note, bandying the slogan “Shalom, Sharon.”
Vajpayee downplayed the criticism. “It’s all politics,” he said, pointing out that one of his predecessors, Deve Gowda, had met with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that some politicians in India voicing opposition to Sharon’s trip have themselves visited Israel. The Indian prime minister described the Sharon visit as a “turning point in bilateral relations” between the countries, which established full diplomatic relations in 1992. In previous decades, India was seen as tilting toward Moscow during the Cold War and siding with the Arab world against Israel.
“India-Israel relations have acquired a multi-dimensional character, particularly over the last decade,” Vajpayee said. “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.”
Despite the growing ties between the two countries, Vajpayee rejected the notion that the countries are facing identical terrorist threats. “The circumstances under which we are tackling the menace of cross-border terrorism are different from those prevailing in the Middle East,” he said. “But we do not really need to make comparisons.”
Vajpayee reiterated his country’s support for the American-sponsored road map to Middle East peace. “It is well known that India welcomed the road map… 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,” he said. “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 Indian prime minister passed on an opportunity to directly criticize talk of Israel also establishing diplomatic ties and a security relationship with his country’s main rival, Pakistan. “Sovereign countries are free to decide where their respective national interests lie,” Vajpayee said.
Perhaps the most significant difference of opinion between the two countries regards Iran. India maintains warm relations with the Persian state. Meanwhile, American and Israeli leaders regularly describe Iran as a leading sponsor of terrorism and a potential nuclear threat.
“We view our relations with Iran based on our own historical experiences,” Vajpayee said. “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.”