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Harper gets a rock star welcome in Israel as he kicks off first Middle East visit

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen visit Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday. Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem is seen in the background. While in the Middle East Harper will be visiting Israel, West Bank and Jordan.

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen visit Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday. Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem is seen in the background. While in the Middle East Harper will be visiting Israel, West Bank and Jordan.

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Stephen Harper basked in a hero's welcome in Israel on Sunday as he arrived for his inaugural visit to the Middle East, taking in a sweeping mountaintop view of Old Jerusalem before his Israeli counterpart literally rolled out the red carpet for his Canadian friend.

Canada's prime minister is "a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people," Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said at an elaborate welcome ceremony for Harper held inside a tent pitched outside his office that featured the two leaders reviewing an honour guard as a military band played.

Chatting amiably, the two men then greeted a receiving line of several high-ranking Israeli and Canadian cabinet ministers, diplomats and rabbis from both countries.

Netanyahu told the reception Harper has shown "great moral leadership" in fighting terrorism and taking a stand against anti-Semitism and Iran.

"I think in all this, and in so many other things, you‘ve shown courage, clarity and conviction," Netanyahu said. "The people of Israel and I deeply appreciate your friendship, and the friendship of the people of Canada to us."

Netanyahu's remarks came after the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting earlier Sunday, in which he exalted Harper once again to his fellow Israeli politicians.

"Prime Minister Harper articulates a clear, courageous and moral stance in relation to the truth and the standards needed by the international community regarding Israel and the conflict here," he said.

"I think he has taken a moral stand worthy of admiration, and I welcome him on behalf of the Israeli government and on behalf of all the citizens of Israel."

After beaming through Netanyahu's praise for him, Harper strode to the podium to say he was delighted to be in Israel, but added he'd save further comments for his speech to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on Monday.

That historic address — Harper will be the first Canadian prime minister to ever address the Knesset — comes hours after the prime minister travels to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He's expected to announce further aid to the Palestinians during that visit.

Harper arrived in Israel earlier Sunday to kick off his inaugural visit to the Middle East, accompanied by a sizable entourage that flew into Tel Aviv under brilliantly sunny skies. He'll also visit Jordan at the end of the six-day visit.

He and his wife, Laureen, were greeted at the airport by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign affairs minister, and Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s ambassador-designate to the Jewish state.

The Harpers then travelled via motorcade along a winding, scenic highway to Mount of Olives to take in its spectacular views of Old Jerusalem. At various points along the way, children stood at the side of the road waving as they watched the motorcade go by.

As the sun began to sink slowly in the west, Haim Cohen, a research fellow at the University of Haifa, pointed out the many points of interest to the couple, the most imposing being the glittering Dome of the Rock directly across from their stunning perch. The Harpers asked several questions and intently listened to Cohen's responses.

The Mount of Olives is important in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, and has been used as a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years. It’s named after olive groves that once clambered up its hillside.

Harper is travelling with six cabinet ministers, a senator and 30 top business executives that include David Asper, Philip Reichmann and Air Canada CEO and president Calin Rovinescu. Twenty-one rabbis and a priest also accompanied Harper.

In total, there are as many as 300 people in the delegation, including cabinet ministers, MPs and support staff. Canadian taxpayers will be covering the entire cost of travel and accommodations for at least 30 of them.

Spokesman Jason MacDonald says Harper will promote commercial relations, as well as peace and security in the region, when he meets with Israeli leaders and, later in the week, with the King of Jordan.

"This is a historic occasion," said Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, one of the cabinet ministers in Israel this week.

But Oliver said the visit was critical not just because it forged closer political ties between the two countries, but also on the commerce front.

"There's an opportunity that didn't exist before to actually play a role in the development of Israel's natural resources because they found the largest discovery of natural gas in the last 10 years," he said. "And we have a lot of expertise, obviously, in off-shore and non-conventional oil."

Nonetheless, Harper has shifted his government's Middle East policy decidedly in favour of the Jewish state during his eight years in power, marking what has been widely viewed as a departure from Canada's so-called honest broker position in the troubled region.

In the summer of the 2006, while Israeli warplanes were pounding Lebanon after Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, Harper characterized the response as "measured."

That comment angered Canadians of Arab and Muslim descent, and was widely viewed by analysts as marking a significant shift away from Canada's traditional role in the Middle East.

Since then, Conservative support has manifested itself in myriad ways, including Canada's vocal opposition against the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations. Canada was one of only nine countries to vote against the Palestinian efforts.

Harper has also forged a close relationship with Netanyahu.

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