Stephen Harper, the staunchly pro-Israel Canadian prime minister, was scheduled to arrive in Israel Sunday afternoon, marking his first official trip to the Middle East and the first visit to the region by a sitting prime minister from the North American country in over a decade.
Harper’s support for Israel was underlined in a press release issued by his office about the trip, which used the “Jewish State of Israel” formulation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is asking the Palestinian Authority to endorse as one of Israel’s conditions for a peace deal. “Canada supports the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to build the institutions and infrastructure necessary for a viable Palestinian state established through a negotiated agreement with the Jewish State of Israel,” the press release stated, in a section discussing Harper’s scheduled meetings with Palestinian leaders during the trip.
As part of a six-day sojourn in the region, Harper will be in Israel for four days, during which time he will meet with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres to discuss possibilities for increasing trade and strengthening relations between the two countries, a press release from Harper’s office said. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian nuclear threat and instability in Syria are also on the agenda.
On Monday, Harper will become the first Canadian prime minister to address the Knesset, and on Tuesday he will attend a joint meeting of the Israeli and Canadian governments before accompanying Netanyahu to Yad Vashem, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. On his final day in Israel, he plans to tour Christian sites in Israel’s north before attending a ceremony at Tel Aviv University, where he will receive an honorary doctorate.
He will also travel to the West Bank on Monday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and, on Wednesday, embark on a three-day visit to Jordan to meet with Hashemite King Abdullah II and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour.
“Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a great friend of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “He has come out strongly against attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and has taken a praiseworthy moral stand against these attempts. I welcome his arrival together with his wife and the members of his delegation. We will work together to further enhance the important relations between our two countries.”
Harper, an evangelical Christian and one of Israel’s most unabashedly staunch allies, announced the upcoming trip at a Jewish National Fund dinner in December, calling Israel “a light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness” and pledged that the Jewish state “will always have Canada as a friend.”
Since his election in 2006, the Conservative prime minister has been a full-throated, unapologetic supporter of Israel.
Harper was the first Western leader to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority following Hamas’s seizure that year of power in Gaza, and the first to withdraw from the second UN World Conference Against Racism, known as Durban II, saying the event would “scapegoat the Jewish people.”
Canada has sided openly with Israel in every one of its military operations since 2006. Netanyahu calls him Stephen, and the two speak regularly. Earlier this month, Harper appointed Vivian Bercovici, a Toronto lawyer and an outspoken Israel supporter, as Canada’s ambassador to Israel.
Harper will be accompanied on the trip by his wife, Laureen, and a substantial delegation of leaders from the Canadian government, including several senior ministers.
JTA contributed to this report.