JERUSALEM (Video) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Prime Minister Stephen Harper Sunday for a four-day visit, with Netanyahu praising the Canadian leader as “a great friend of Israel and the Jewish People.”
Monday was the first full day of Harper’s landmark first visit to Israel, accompanied by his wife, Laureen, and a delegation of some 150 to 200 cabinet ministers, community and business leaders, rabbis and media.
The goals for the visit, which is said to have great significance for Harper personally, included not only reinforcing Harper’s longtime support for Israel, but establishing warmer relations between Canada and Israel’s Palestinian and Jordanian neighbours.
Harper’s entourage was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday afternoon by Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman and Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s ambassador-designate to Israel.
In an official speech to the delegation, Netanyahu referred to Harper as “a great friend of Israel and the Jewish People.”
He also praised Harper at his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“Today, for the first time, a great friend of the State of Israel, and a great friend of mine, is visiting Israel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” he said Sunday at the start of the meeting.
“Canada is a faithful friend of the State of Israel. Under Stephen Harper’s leadership, it has taken a moral and steadfast position against attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel. Prime Minister Harper has expressed a clear, brave and moral stand regarding the truth and in regard to the standards that the international community needs to adopt regarding the State of Israel and the conflict here.
“I think that this is worthy of praise and I welcome him on behalf of the government and people of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
En route to his Jerusalem hotel, Harper’s delegation made a brief stop at the Mount of Olives, a site of significance for all three of the country’s major religions.
Monday morning, the prime minister’s schedule began with an early-morning trip to the West Bank areas of Bethlehem and Ramallah, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
There, Harper announced $66 million in new aid for sustainable development and security reforms in the West Bank and Gaza. The money will fund training and technical assistance and help start-up businesses and existing micro, small and mid-sized enterprises. The initiative will particularly target women’s entrepreneurship in these regions.
Harper said, “Canada looks forward to a bright future for all Palestinians, one in which security and prosperity are enjoyed in a viable and democratic Palestinian state. The support we are providing today will advance those goals by furthering the peace process, generating jobs and economic growth.”
Harper was to address the Knesset later on Monday afternoon, marking the first time a sitting Canadian prime minister has addressed Israel’s legislature.
During that address, Canadians living in Israel were planning to rally nearby to show support for Harper’s unwavering stance on Israel.
Organizer Danny Hershtal told The CJN, “Israelis don’t follow Canadian politics… they only know what happens in America. This rally is an outpouring of people who really wanted a chance to meet him or at least say thank you for his support.”
Harper was not able to meet with the group, but they were hopeful that other delegates would be able to speak with them.
On Tuesday, Harper was scheduled to have official meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu before a visit to Yad Vashem, accompanied by Netanyahu, and then on to holy sites including the Western Wall.
On Wednesday, he was slated to head north to the Upper Galilee to inaugurate the future site of a bird sanctuary in the Hula Valley being named in his honour. He was also to receive an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and participate in a moderated question-and-answer session there with students.
Following the session at TAU, on Wednesday evening, Harper was to fly from Ben-Gurion Airport directly to Jordan for the remainder of his stay in the Middle East.
To honour Harper’s visit, the Israeli Philatelic Service issued a commemorative postmark to recognize the shared values and strong economic, political and social ties between Canada and Israel.
Meanwhile, delegates with B’nai Brith Canada, which is normally a strong supporter of Harper and the Conservative party, circulated a media release Sunday complaining that its members had been excluded from a “private pre-dinner meeting” between Harper and Netanyahu.
“The strong voices of independent grassroots Jewry must not be excluded from official functions,” said B’nai Brith CEO Frank Dimant, expressing concern that in their absence, there would be no strong advocate for a continued Jewish presence in the areas of Judea and Samaria.
Also over the weekend, Canadian media decried the up-to-200-member delegation travelling at taxpayer expense with Harper.
Back in Canada, the Globe and Mail called Harper’s trip to Israel “one of the largest Canadian delegations mounted for a foreign visit.” The delegation is reported to include six cabinet ministers, lawmakers, political staff and diplomats, as well as business people and leaders of Jewish community groups and other non-governmental organizations.
About 30 of the business and community leaders travelled on Harper’s official airplane, while others flew commercially. Most will stay at hotels paid for by the government, the newspaper reported.
Among those in the delegation are business executives David Asper and Albert Reichmann, as well as Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu.
“It is a significant delegation. This is an important trip, and it’s one that’s generated a lot of interest,” Jason MacDonald, Harper’s communications director, said at a news briefing Jan. 17.
Ottawa has also paid for private participants in other large prime ministerial delegations, including on visits to China and India, according to the newspaper.
With files from JTA and JNS
Prime Minister Steven Harper speaking at the Knesset Plenum with
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli
Edelstein. [Israel Sun photo]