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In Israel, Harper puts Canada’s ‘best friend’ status into practice

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a welcoming ceremony in Jerusalem on Jan. 19, 2014.

SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's eight years of unequivocal backing came to life with a display of exuberant goodwill on his first day in Israel, but his first personal foray into the Middle East will still test his assertions that Canada can be the Jewish state's staunchest ally and retain a regional role with other key players.

At a time when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking a framework agreement to extend Israel-Palestinians peace talks, Mr. Harper's agenda for the week-long visit – a meeting Monday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a speech to the Knesset and meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah – will compel him to weigh in on regional issues, and for the first time, with a personal presence.

Already, his arrival in Israel has provoked a reception that cements his reputation as, in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's words, Israel's "best friend."

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Mr. Harper was announced to trumpet bursts, inspected an honour guard, and walked, smiling through a reception line that included a half-dozen Israeli cabinet ministers.

"This world is often cynical and hypocritical, and you have shown great moral leadership," Mr. Netanyahu said, lauding him for speaking out against terrorism and anti-semitism, and for supporting Israel's security. "In standing up for the truth, your voice, Stephen, has been an indispensable one."

Mr. Harper made only brief remarks in reply, saying he was "delighted" to be in Israel, and that he'd save his words for his Knesset speech on Monday evening. But the group accompanying him in Israel showed similar gusto, with 208 private citizens in the "accompanying party," including 21 rabbis, representatives of 20 Jewish community groups, and a half-dozen evangelical Christian organizations, and business people including the presidents of Air Canada and Bell Helicopter Canada.

There's little doubt Mr. Harper's visit here is intended to entrench Conservative support within the Jewish community in Canada – 15 Conservative MPs, plus Mr. Harper, were in attendance.

But Mr. Harper's visit also underscores his government's foreign policy shift: echoing Israel's skepticism about a diplomatic deal on Iran's nuclear program, refusing to condemn Israeli settlements, and opposing international diplomatic pressure on Israel. His hosts will want another element emphasized in his Knesset speech: that peace requires Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state, something Mr. Netanyahu insists is fundamental but Mr. Abbas rejects.

While Mr. Harper has set aside the notion of Canada as a neutral, honest-broker, his agenda is also aimed at asserting his pro-Israel policy it is not one-note.

His first working meeting will be in Ramallah, with Mr. Abbas, in an attempt to reset relations with the Palestinian Authority. The last meeting between the two men, at United Nations headquarters in New York in 2012, was brusque: Mr. Harper warned him against his bid for observer-state status at the UN. Canada then delayed renewal of its five-year, $300-million Palestinian aid package.

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Now, Mr. Harper is expected to announce a new aid package. Canada's last aid package centred on policing and justice, like building a courthouse, and the Palestinians have this time suggested social programs, like education.

But Mr. Harper's government has seized upon the idea of promoting the private-sector economy, possibly including a funding mechanism for Palestinian companies to access capital – aimed at stimulating the Palestinian economy in the belief it will improve the climate for cooperation with Israel.

In Jordan, Israel's friendliest Arab neighbour, Mr. Harper's visit will underscore support for a country whose moderate Hashemite kingdom, coping with the influx of 600,000 Syrian refugees, faces a fragile balance. Mr. Harper's government, concerned that King Abdullah's moderate regime may be threatened, committed $75-million in aid to Jordan last year.

With those steps, Mr. Harper appears set to claim his Mideast policy engages other key players – but notably in ways largely welcomed by Israel, and by many in Canada's Jewish community.

"They have a degree of comfort and confidence that support expressed for legitimate Palestinian aspirations and challenges facing Jordan don't come at the expense of the support expressed for Israel," said Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. "In that context, they're comfortable with Canada playing that kind of role."

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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