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Harper visits Sea of Galilee, Hula Valley bird sanctuary ahead of Jordan tour

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JERUSALEM - One day, it was throngs of jubilant Israelis reaching out to touch Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The next, it was flocks of cranes close enough to touch descending upon a swampy valley to put on a show for Harper and his wife, Laureen, who delighted in the spectacle.

The Harpers visited the bird sanctuary in Israel's picturesque Hula Valley, one that will soon be renamed in honour of the prime minister due to his full-throated support of the Jewish state since he came to power eight years ago.

Along with some members of the Canadian delegation in the Middle East this week with Harper, the prime ministerial couple was pulled around the sanctuary by a tractor on Wednesday as they sat in an open-air trailer on a hazy afternoon.

They marvelled at the tens of thousands of common cranes being fed simultaneously — and very noisily — by sanctuary workers. At one point, Harper stood up in the vehicle and peered through binoculars to get an even closer look.

The couple laughed when the vehicle pulling the media pool got stuck in the mud, particularly when one reporter jokingly called out for Harper's help. The Harpers and some members of the delegation, including Sen. Linda Frum, Development Minister Christian Paradis and Trade Minister Ed Fast, waved cheerfully to the media after a brief ground-breaking ceremony.

Before departing for Jordan, Harper accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Tel Aviv, where he told the audience that he didn't share in the elation that first greeted the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt three years ago.

"I think we should all be chastened by the lessons over the last two or three years," Harper said during a stage-managed question-and-answer session.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm, unbridled enthusiasm, in much of the West for the revolution in Egypt and with very good reason. We were a little more cautious."

That caution was borne out as Egyptian elections were used not to foster democracy, but to move towards an authoritarian, Islamic state, he said.

Harper also said he welcomes the stability that followed the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.

"At the same time, we understand if the new government is to be truly successful over time in Egypt, they do have to transition towards a democratic order and obviously with respect for human rights and the rule of law."

He also repeated his suspicions about Iran's willingness to actually follow the terms of its interim agreement on slowing its nuclear research program.

He said he isn't interested in "the nobility of the words" and wants to see real, verifiable results.

The delegation arrived late Wednesday in Jordan, where — given his earlier unabashed expression of Canadian support for Israel — it's not unreasonable to assume Harper should expect a decidedly more muted reception.

During his first-ever visit to the Arab nation, Harper is scheduled to sit down with Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour as well as King Abdullah, and also to see a Syrian refugee camp first-hand.

Earlier Wednesday, fresh off a hero's welcome by Israeli worshippers at the Western Wall on Tuesday night, Harper flew north in a military Black Hawk helicopter to take in the splendours of one of the country’s most popular and spiritually significant areas around the Sea of Galilee.

The sea attracts Christian pilgrims since the New Testament describes Jesus performing miracles on its shores.

The first stop for the Harpers was the 3,000-year-old village of Capernaum, where they visited ancient ruins and the site of first synagogue on the shores of the sea.

According to the Bible, Capernaum was chosen by Jesus to be the centre of his public ministry in Galilee after leaving Nazareth. Evangelists believe Jesus went on the Sabbath at the synagogue there.

Franciscan monks served as tour guides as the Harpers wandered to the stony seaside on their first visit to the Middle East. A plaintively meowing cat trailed them on their tour, perhaps mindful of the couple's legendary love of felines.

The next stop was the ancient Church of the Beatitudes, also overlooking the Sea of Galilee. On the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus is said to have preached the "Sermon on the Mount." The church was built on the slope of the Mount in 1938.

After the Harpers posed for media photographs, two nuns handed an iPad to a journalist and asked him to snap a picture of them with Laureen Harper. The three women beamed for the camera.

The Harpers next headed to the Hula Valley to visit the bird sanctuary. The audience of about 200 people, made up at least partly by members of the Canadian delegation, chanted "Harper! Harper!" as he entered a makeshift conference hall at the sanctuary.

The Canadian Jewish community had raised about $5.7 million on Dec. 1 to help refurbish the sanctuary. Israel's new ambassador, Rafi Barak, said in a recent interview that the Israeli government views the wetlands preserve as "our symbolic way to say thanks" to Harper for the public support he’s offered their country over the years.

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