Stephen Harper welcomed as 'great friend' of Israel

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a sizable entourage have arrived for his first official state visit to Israel. The six-day Middle East tour will include stops in the West Bank and Jordan.

Harper's plane left Ottawa on Saturday evening, with six cabinet ministers on board, along with 30 business people and community leaders.

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

"The total delegation is probably about 250," said the CBC's Terry Milewski from Jerusalem. "That includes the RCMP and the media of course [and] about 21 rabbis by my count, some presidents of various companies also, who are paying their own way. It's a big, big delegation."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an official speech to the Canadian delegation calling Harper "a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people."

Netanyahu praised Harper for standing by Israel on issues including Iran's nuclear program, and terrorism.

"You have shown great moral leadership when it comes to fighting terrorism," said Netanyahu. "When it comes to anti-Semitism, you've stood up unabashedly at the sight of Israel and the entire Jewish people."

Harper said he would deliver a longer speech later in his visit but stood up briefly to say "how delighted" he and his wife Laureen are to be in Israel.

The delegation is headed to Jerusalem, where another ceremony will be held at Netanyahu's office.

The aim of Harper's visit, said Milewski, is multi-fold. 

"Expansion of the existing free trade agreement with Israel [is on the agenda], also a transport agreement and funding for a research institution," Milewski said.

Key elements of the trip will be a meeting with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

"Mr. Harper is anxious to show that his support for Israel is not entirely one-sided," said Milewski, who added that Harper will be bringing the promise of funds to build more courthouses and other projects in the West Bank.

Harper will address Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Monday, making history as the first Canadian prime minister to do so. It will be the prime minister's first visit to Israel since being elected to the post in 2006.

On Tuesday, he will be the guest of honour at a reception dinner in Jerusalem and 400 people will reportedly attend.

His spokesman Jason MacDonald said Harper will promote commercial relations during his visit, as well as peace and security in the region, when he meets Israeli leaders and, later in the week, the king of Jordan, where Harper will be visiting a Syrian refugee camp.

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