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Harper spends remainder of Israel trip playing tourist and being honored

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent the remaining day and a half of his four-day Israel trip on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 21 and then Wednesday, Jan. 22 playing the tourist, taking in some of Israel's holiest sites, being honored, entertained and being the entertainment. Harper's afternoon was filled was filled with visits to some of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, first visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with Netanyahu and then visiting the Kotel, Western Wall the holiest site for Jews. Harper's third day was capped with a state dinner hosted by Netanyahu and his wife Sara, and the Canadian Prime Minister again gave a mini concert, which is fast becoming his hallmark. Harper then spent his last day in Israel on Wednesday, Jan. 22 playing tourist visiting by helicopter some important religious sites in the Galilee in Northern Israel. He was also feted by the Jewish National Fund and visited the Bird Sanctuary being renamed in his honor and then be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Tel Aviv University from the Tel Aviv University where the Canadian Prime Minister partook in a question and answer period.

With an extremely busy and tight schedule during his first two days in Israel, Harper and his wife Laureen had little time to enjoy the historical, religious sites and the beauty of Israel. On the first day of his trip, Sunday afternoon, Jan. 19 Harper and Laureen took the scenic route as they went through Jerusalem's old city after arriving at Ben Gurion international Airport in Tel Aviv and on their way to Netanyahu's office. The Harpers visited the Mount of Olives where they were treated to an expansive view of Israel's old city and information from their chosen guide Haim Cohen, "a research fellow at the University of Haifa."

Then the next morning on Monday, Jan. 20 as the Canadian Prime Minster went to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, where Harper and his wife toured the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

While the countries' leaders were hammering out trade and economic agreements on Tuesday morning, Jan 21 the first ladies, spent time together with Sara Netanyahu showing Laureen Harper some of the sites in Jerusalem. They had a breakfast together following it up with a visit to Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo.

In the afternoon, Prime Minister Netanyahu played museum guide hosting Harper at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum where they were accompanied by their wives. At every stop in the museum Netanyahu would "explain the exhibits" to his Canadian counterpart. Harper wrote in the guestbook; "They are remembered always, in our hearts, in our prayers and most importantly in our resolve. Never again." The tour ended in emotionally touching the Hall of Names, the room's dome and walls are all covered with photos of those who perished in the Holocaust.

Reaching the Kotel at sunset, Harper was joined by a number of Members of Parliament that were part of his delegation along with some other Jewish members of his delegation. Harper spent a solemn moment praying at the Kotel, wearing a Kippah on his head and both his hands firmly on the wall; the affect was all the greater in the glow of Israel's warm golden sunset. Harper was greeted by hundreds of Israeli worshippers including Canadian Israelis, and members of his delegation who "cheered" and wanted to "touch his hand," like a celebrity or a sacrilegious as it is, like a he was himself a religious figure.

Harper was suppose to visit the Dome of the Rock, a holy site for all three religions of Israel, Muslims, Jews and Christians, but ended up cancelling that stop because Israel's security Shin Bet had concerns prompting PMO spokesman Jason MacDonald to issue a statement, which said; "Out of respect we have decided not to visit the Dome of the Rock on this trip."

In the evening on Tuesday, Jan. 21 Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sara hosted a state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Harper and his wife Laureen held at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem and attended by Harper's delegation of nearly 300 including six cabinet ministers, six Members of Parliament, and 21 rabbis, a Catholic priest, Jewish communal leaders, business leaders and lobbyists, and the newly appointed Canadian ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici.

At the dinner Netanyahu toasted Harper which Arutz 7 reported was a response to Harper's address in the Knesset the day before which Netanyahu called "a historic speech." Harper according to Arutz 7 "told Netanyahu that he appreciated his warm friendship which, he said, transcends the personal friendship between the two leaders and extends to both countries."

The major highlight of the state dinner was the Canadian Prime Minister's short singing performance, playing the keyboard and singing the Beatles "Hey Jude" and "Have a Little Help From My Friends" to the crowd in attendance. Harper got the crowd singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," which prompted a standing ovation, but throughout Harper's set Netanyahu and his wife Sara were seen singing and "humming along." Netanyahu also gave a Harper a standing ovation and commended the performance after, saying; "Terrific, thank you Stephen - that was great," and called Harper a "Canadian rock star."

Prime Minister Harper and his wife spent the morning of his fourth and last day in Israel on Wednesday, Jan. 22 visiting the holy and historical sites near the Sea of Galilee, both Jewish and Christian. The Harpers were taken by a Black Hawk helicopter to the region to view the full panoramic view of area's beauty. Minister of strategic affairs Yuval Steinitz and the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Canada Rafi Barak hosted the Harpers, as both Netanyahu and Peres had already headed to the Davos World Economic Forum.

The sites the Harpers viewed were predominantly Christian pilgrimage sites and related to the New Testament Bible and Jesus, a locale with a history that is 3000 years old. Harper is an Evangelical Christian, but does not speak publically much about his faith as to not interfere with being the leader of a multi-faith country. They visited Capernaum on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, which was the "centre of [Jesus's] public ministry" after he departed from Nazareth. The one Jewish site visited was the Synagogue of Capernaum's ruins, "the first synagogue" in the Galilee, where Jesus supposedly attended. The Harpers also walked along the sea's coast, in itself a Christian holy place.

The Harpers were given a tour of the Franciscan Church of the Beatitudes by its nuns, located at the site where "Jesus Christ is said to have delivered the 'Sermon on the Mount.'" Even in an area filled with miracles sacred to their religion, the nuns could not help but be "star struck" by the Canadian Prime Minister, according to the Canadian Press two nuns took out their iPhone and asked to take a photo with Laureen Harper.

Harper was then feted by the Jewish National Fund and visited and toured the Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park in the Hula Valley. At a ceremony, Harper and Laureen laid the cornerstone of the visitors' center that will be "named in Harper's honor," the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre. While the auditorium will be named in the Prime Minister wife's honor and called the Laureen Harper auditorium.

The dedication and honor according Ambassador Barak was Israel's "symbolic way to say thanks" to the Canadian Prime Minister for his unwavering support. Harper delivered some remarks at the ceremony, expressing; "I do hope that although it all bears my name, you will all think of you, as Jewish Canadians whenever you come here, think of this as part of what you contributed to this country of Israel and to this relationship between Canada and Israel."

The Prime Minister and his wife and some of the delegation were then given a "tour of the sanctuary" and park. The Harpers had the opportunity to take in some "bird watching" when they were taken out in a trailers to the wetlands to view the flying cranes.

Harper capped his day on Wednesday evening, Jan. 22 and his Israel trip by be awarded an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University for "exemplary conduct as a prominent world leader who promotes freedom, human rights and the rule of law." The elaborate ceremony full of pomp and circumstance "featured a string quartet," university President Joseph Klafter gave the introductory speech, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai also spoke, and the Canadian Prime Minister donned the university's "black and red robes." Everything Canada-Israel was celebrated along with the man of the hour. President Klafer praised Harper stating; "At a time when voices are calling for a boycott on Israeli academia... Mr. Harper is voting with his feet." Mayor Huldlai declared the Prime Minister a "great friend of Israel and the Jewish People," and "indeed mishpachah."

Harper then partook in a question and answer period with university students and journalists, where his comments were highly critical of the turmoil in the Arab nations of the Middle East. Harper began his trip celebrating Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and he ended his trip criticizing the "unrest"in Israel's neighboring Arab and Muslim countries; Egypt, Syria and Iran, which only highlighted and justified Israel's security concerns to the global community. The university ended the ceremony announcing the establishment of the Stephen J. Harper research chair for interdisciplinary Canadian -Israeli studies focusing on the "challenges facing both Israeli and Canadian society" in his honor and funded by the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Earlier Harper spent the third day of his four-day Israel trip in important meetings with Israeli leaders, first meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli opposition leader Chaim Herzog. Harper then attended a joint cabinet meeting with a team of some his most important economic ministers that accompanied him on the trip and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where they signed significant bilateral agreements between both countries. After they had a press conference which predominantly focused on the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and Canada's position on the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where Harper again departed from policies of international community towards Israel.

The Canadian Prime Minister and his contingent now move on to the second leg of his trip on Wednesday, Jan. 22-25 to Amman, Jordan for three days, where he will meet with "Hashemite King Abdullah II and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour," before returning back to Canada on Saturday, Jan. 25 with a relationship even more close and secure to Israel and its leadership more in sync than ever.

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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