Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make his first visit to Israel in January, further solidifying his reputation as a staunch supporter of the country – and aiding his successful outreach efforts to Canada’s Jewish community.
Calling Israel a “light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness,” Mr. Harper made the announcement Sunday evening in Toronto, where the Jewish National Fund honoured him at its Negev Dinner.
He will also make stops in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of a free and democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the Middle East,” he told the packed hall at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
“It is not just that Israel shares common values with us, Israel also faces common threats,” he said. “The same threats that we face in Canada and throughout the Western world.”
Mr. Harper did not explicitly name the threats to which he was referring, but Iran’s nuclear program has loomed large over the Middle East in recent years, and Mr. Harper’s government took a skeptical stance on a recent deal to freeze it.
In a separate release, the Prime Minister’s Office said his visit would serve the purpose of strengthening both security and economic growth, as well as “promoting Canadian values, such as tolerance and human rights.”
The statement also reaffirmed Mr. Harper’s intention to stand up for Israel at the United Nations.
Looking relaxed in a button-up black shirt with no jacket or tie, Mr. Harper ended his speech with a performance by his band, Herringbone, who played classic rock tunes by the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Introducing his rendition of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, he joked that one of his band members had a “lost weekend” during which he wound up in Boston “in a drunken stupor.”
The Prime Minister, who shared the stage with Foreign Minister John Baird and Employment Minister Jason Kenney, spent much of the night receiving accolades for his foreign policy.
In a videotaped message played after Mr. Harper spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded his Canadian counterpart for “unabashedly, unapologetically,” standing up for Israel.
Rafael Barak, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, echoed those sentiments. “Your friendship is just not talk, but is evident in your actions on the global stage,” he said in a speech before Mr. Harper provided his remarks Sunday night. “We are truly touched by your friendship and we admire your integrity.”
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said he hopes Mr. Harper uses his travels to help the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and that the Prime Minister offers assistance to Jordan for refugees fleeing the long-running internal violence in Syria.
“I would hope that he tries to reach out and lend a helping hand to the peace process, and that would mean reaching out to Palestinians, of course,” Mr. Dewar said in an interview.
“[It’s an] opportunity to involve ourselves more than we have, and that will be judged by what his goals are and what his actions are when he makes his trip to the region,” he said.
The trip to the Middle East is only the latest in several moves by Mr. Harper to show his backing for Israel. His government opposed the Palestinians’ bid for their territory to be recognized as a state by the United Nations last year.
Most recently, Mr. Baird said he was “deeply skeptical” of the pact to curb Iran’s nuclear program, remarks that were harsher in tone than those of the six leading powers that negotiated the deal: the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France.
Mr. Harper’s stand has bolstered his party’s support among Jewish voters: Ipsos-Reid estimated more than half of the community backed the Conservative Party in the 2011 election.
With a report from The Canadian Press