Harper announces first trip to Israel

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, arrive Sunday evening at the Jewish National Fund of Toronto’s 2013 Negev Dinner, where he was honoured for his support of Israel and the Jewish People.	[Jason Ransom/PMO photo]

TORONTO — (Video) Just before serenading 4,000 guests at Sunday night’s annual Jewish National Fund (JNF) Negev Dinner with a selection of rock’n’roll hits, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he will visit Israel next month.

According to Ha'aretz, the Prime Minister will be in the region for a four day visit, starting Jan. 19.

A playful and relaxed Harper, the gala’s honoree, predicted “a great trip” to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, and reminded the rapt crowd of his staunch and unabashed support for the Jewish state.

Noting that “these are dark days. I just wanted you to know that I understand where you’re coming from on this,” said Harper.

Calling Israel “a light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness,” he added: “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.

“And I tell you friends, we understand that. And that’s why Israel will always have Canada as a friend in the world,” the  prime  minister said to wide applause and cheers from the crowd at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

“As long as we are there, Canada will hold firm.”

Canada and Israel, he said, share common values as well as common threats – “the same threats that we face in Canada and throughout the western world.”

Details of Harper’s trip were unavailable at The CJN’s Monday morning deadline.

A statement from Harper’s office said Canada “recognizes the importance of building inclusive and stable societies underpinned by democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Our government will continue to take a strong, principled stand internationally, including at the United Nations, on all matters related to Israel and the Middle East.

“I look forward to visiting the Middle East early next year to explore ways of strengthening peace and security, stimulating sustainable economic growth, and promoting essential Canadian values, such as tolerance and human rights, across the region,” Harper said in the statement.

He called the dinner “a show of affection, of love, and I really appreciate that. And I want to show you a little bit of affection and love in return.”

To the surprise of attendees, Harper then introduced Herringbone, the Ottawa-based rock band in which he plays keyboards and sings. With the prime minister on lead vocals, the band played a series of rock classics, including Neil Diamond’s crowd-pleasing Sweet Caroline and the Beatles’ Hey Jude.

Many in the crowd left as Harper was still singing.

In September, the JNF announced that a project in Israel would be named after Harper.

The Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre will be located in the northern Hula Valley, a wetlands region that serves as a passageway for migrating birds.

The project calls for a 4,000-square-metre visitor’s centre bearing Harper’s name to be built in the Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park. Canadian Press called it “a surefire photo-op for Harper’s eventual trip to Israel.”

JNF Canada has raised nearly $6 million for the project. “I’m glad to say this will be our best campaign in our 65-year history,” Josh Cooper, JNF’s national CEO, told CP.

“The project will bring jobs to the region. It will be an epicentre for environmentalists, for birders from all over the world, to learn and study birds together in Israel,” Cooper said.

In 2000, Jean Chrétien became the first sitting Canadian prime minister to visit Israel.

Serving as MCs at the dinner were Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Employment and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, who called Harper’s Conservatives “the first and only Canadian government to acknowledge” Canada’s “shameful” none-is-too-many policy on admitting war-era Jewish refugees from Europe.

To cheers, Kenney said the government is building a national Holocaust monument in Ottawa, and has invested $100 million in a human rights museum in Winnipeg, where the Holocaust will be front and centre.

Also in attendance was Israel’s new ambassador to Canada, Rafael Barak, who praised Harper.

“Your friendship is just not talk, but is evident in your actions on the global stage,” Barak said prior to Harper’s speech. “We are truly touched by your friendship and we admire your integrity.”

Sending regards via videotape was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lauded Harper for “unabashedly, unapologetically,” standing up for Israel.

Harper is “a real leader who stood up for Israel time and again,” Netanyahu said. “He doesn’t want to be politically correct. He wants to be correct.”

For his “clarity of conviction and thought, I salute you, Stephen.”

Dinner co-chairs were Sen. Linda Frum and her husband, businessman Howard Sokolowski.