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Israeli President set for warm reception from Mulcair

Israel's President Shimon Peres speaks during the opening ceremony of the annual Holocaust Memorial Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem April 18, 2012.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

As Israel's President Shimon Peres visits Ottawa this week, he will be met by support from an unusual corner – the Leader of the New Democratic Party.

Thomas Mulcair hasn't dramatically altered his party's middle-way policies on the Middle East, but he's seen as having a much more sympathetic stand on Israel than his predecessors.

Stephen Harper's pro-Israel views are well-known – he recently took Canada's support to a new height when he refused to join in condemning Israel's claim that a pre-emptive air strike against Iran would be within its rights. However, Mr. Mulcair has a personal connection to Israel.

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In 2008, at a gala hosted by Tribune Juive magazine, Mr. Mulcair said: "My in-laws are Holocaust survivors. Their history is part of my daily life. That's why I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all instances and circumstances," he said in French, according to Canadian Jewish News.

Mr. Mulcair's past statements brought him criticism during his leadership campaign from some groups critical of Israeli policy, like Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East and Independent Jewish Voices. The IJV also attacked him for donations he received from people associated with pro-Israel lobby groups, asserting he was too close to them.

When Mr. Peres, who was set to arrive Sunday, spends 30 minutes in a meeting with Mr. Mulcair Tuesday afternoon, it will be the first time a senior Israeli leader has met with him.

For Mr. Mulcair, it is, according to his press secretary, just part of the Opposition Leader's role. "As the government-in-waiting, we do these kinds of things," said spokesman George Soule.

It's true that Mr. Peres's trip here is not the more political visit that Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made in March. Israel's President, akin to Canada's Governor-General, is a national icon, not a leader with political powers. Even when he was in active politics, Mr. Peres was never seen as being as divisive a figure as Mr. Netanyahu, and Israeli presidents have been welcomed by governments and opposition party leaders in the past.

"It is meant to symbolize something, and that is the warmth in ties," said Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Mr. Mulcair's sympathies don't mark a departure from the support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue that his late predecessor, Jack Layton, adopted. Though some New Democrat MPs have been more critical of Israeli policies, Mr. Layton strove to make his policy middle-of-the-road, and to avoid loud talk on the issue to prevent divisions.

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With Liberal Leader Bob Rae also viewed as pro-Israel, Mr. Peres is set to get a warm welcome from all the major parties.

Mr. Peres, 88, has already found our air travel to be friendlier: He booked his trip with Air Canada after El Al, Israel's national airline, attempted to charge him nearly $5,000 to bring an oxygen tank on the official trip to Canada.

Israeli media reported last week that he opted to fly with Air Canada because after El Al, for the first time, wanted to charge him. According to protocol, an oxygen tank and other medical equipment is mandatory whenever an Israeli president or prime minister flies abroad.

El Al spokeswoman Anat Friedman said Sunday that the airline sent Mr. Peres an apology. But it arrived too late – Mr. Peres had already booked his trip with Air Canada.

With a report from The Associated Press

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