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Harper to address Israeli parliament on visit

Harper to address Israeli parliament on visitIsrael President Shimon Peres talks with Canadian Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper before a meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday May 7, 2012. Harper will make history in Israel next week when he becomes the first Canadian leader to address the Israeli legislature. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make history in Israel next week when he becomes the first Canadian leader to address the Israeli legislature as he kicks off his inaugural visit to the Middle Eastern nation.

The Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, has said he's happy and proud to welcome Harper to the Knesset, calling him a "brave and true friend of Israel."

"Canada's governmental and public support for Israel has been unwavering and encouraging throughout our history," Edelstein said recently as he announced Harper's upcoming speech to parliament.

"I have no doubt that this important visit is a celebration of fraternity for the two countries and I believe that it will further strengthen the ties between them."

No Canadian prime minister has ever before addressed the Knesset. During a visit to Canada in June 1989, Israeli president Chaim Herzog addressed a joint session of the House of Commons and the Senate, the last Israeli chief of state to do so.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney assured Herzog of "the unswerving support of Canada for the state of Israel, its security and integrity.”

Harper will undoubtedly do much the same in the days to come — during both his visit to Israel's parliament, and throughout his four-day foray to the country before he travels to Jordan and the West Bank.

Details emerging about Harper's trip suggest, not surprisingly, that it will be a mutual love-in between the prime minister and the Israelis. The Conservative government has been a staunch defender of Israel since Harper came to power eight years ago.

Last month, Harper called Israel "the light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness" as he pledged Canada's eternal friendship.

"We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East," he said at a dinner in Toronto hosted by the Jewish National Fund.

The speech to Israeli parliament will shine an international spotlight on Canada's passionate defence of Israel, says one expert on domestic Jewish studies.

"Most people elsewhere in the world don't pay any attention to what Canada does or says, on Israel or anything else," said Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

"This will get international attention, and a lot of people will politically wake up all over the place, from Morocco to Pakistan. We know that he's been by far the most pro-Israel Canadian prime minister ever, but the rest of the world doesn't. It will put it on the map, and he's going to own it from now on.''

Srebrnik wondered, too, about how Harper will be received in the days following his address to the Knesset, when he travels to Jordan and the West Bank.

"I don't know how people like King Abdullah of Jordan or (Palestinian statesman) Mahmoud Abbas will take it," he said.

In recent shows of Israeli support, Ottawa severed diplomatic ties with Iran last year. The Conservatives remain skeptical of Iran's agreement to temporarily freeze its nuclear program, and are leaving their economic sanctions in place until there's proof that the Iranians are keeping their word.

"We think past actions best predict future actions," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said late last year. "And Iran has defied the United Nations Security Council, it has defied the International Atomic Energy Agency. Simply put Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt."

Harper's jam-packed schedule next week will include receiving an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University on Wednesday, according to the institution's website. Harper and his wife, Laureen, will also travel to the picturesque Hula Valley to visit a bird sanctuary recently renamed in his honour.

The prime minister is travelling with a delegation of 200 people, including prominent Jewish Canadians, journalists and cabinet ministers Baird and Jason Kenney. Kenney announced his trip to the "Holy Land" in an email earlier this week.

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