Stephen Harper to visit Israel for the first time next year
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he plans to visit Israel in January, his first official trip to the Mideast country.
Harper announced his trip -- which will also include visits to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority -- during the Negev Dinner in Toronto, an annual event honouring community leaders and supporters of Israel.
The Jewish National Fund of Toronto hosted the event Sunday, raising $5.7 million to build a bird sanctuary in Israel to be named after Harper.
The Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre will be located in a wetlands rehabilitation project -- one that the Israeli government hopes to turn into a major tourist attraction.
Harper said he was honoured by the “gift.”
He also spoke about Canada’s commitment to protecting Israel, a country he called “a light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness.”
“We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East," Harper told attendees. "And I’ll tell you friends, we understand that, and that’s why Israel will always have Canada as friend in the world.”
The Prime Minister then treated the crowd to a musical performance, where he sang a number rock ‘n’ roll hits, including Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, The Who's The Seeker and The Beatles' Hey Jude.
Earlier in the day, about 200 people gathered in downtown Toronto to protest Harper’s domestic and international record.
Armed with signs, whistles and megaphones, the protestors targeted everything from Harper’s approach to Aboriginal treaty rights to his backing of Canadian mining companies working abroad. Many took aim squarely at the Prime Minister’s unabashed support of Israel.
Harper first announced that support back in the summer of 2006, when he told reporters travelling on his first transatlantic flight that the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah militants was a "measured" response.
Since, as critics have decried that he had compromised Canada's standing as an "honest broker" in the Middle East, the Harper government has aligned itself more firmly with Israel.
With files from The Canadian Press