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Updated: Sun, 19 Jan 2014 11:13:52 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Stephen Harper arrives in Israel on 1st trip to Middle East



Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen arrive in Israel for the start of a six-day Middle East tour. Derek Stoffel/CBC

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen arrive in Israel for the start of a six-day Middle East tour. Derek Stoffel/CBC

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a sizable entourage have arrived at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv for his first official state visit to Israel. The six-day Middle East tour will include stops in the West Bank and Jordan.

Harper's plane left Ottawa on Saturday evening, with six cabinet ministers on board, along with 30 business people and community leaders.

Harper and his wife, Laureen, were greeted by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign affairs minister, and by Vivian Bercovici, Canada's ambassador-designate to the Jewish state.

"The total delegation is probably about 250," said the CBC's Terry Milewski from Jerusalem. "That includes the RCMP and the media of course [and] about 21 rabbis by my count, some presidents of various companies also, who are paying their own way. It's a big, big delegation."

The delegation is headed to Jerusalem, where a welcoming ceremony will be held at Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu's office. Before his official welcome, Harper visited the nearby Mount of Olives to get a good view of the Old City.

Netanyahu released a statement Sunday, calling Canada a "faithful friend" of Israel.

"Prime Minister Harper has expressed a clear, brave and moral stand regarding the truth and in regard to the standards that the international community needs to adopt regarding the State of Israel and the conflict here. I think that this is worthy of praise and I welcome him on behalf of the Government and people of Israel."

The aim of Harper's visit, said Milewski, is multi-fold. 

"Expansion of the existing free trade agreement with Israel [is on the agenda], also a transport agreement and funding for a research institution," Milewski said.

Key elements of the trip will be a meeting with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

"Mr. Harper is anxious to show that his support for Israel is not entirely one-sided," said Milewski, who added that Harper will be bringing the promise of funds to build more courthouses and other projects in the West Bank.

Harper will address Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Monday, making history as the first Canadian prime minister to do so. It will be the prime minister's first visit to Israel since being elected to the post in 2006.

On Tuesday, he will be the guest of honour at a reception dinner in Jerusalem and 400 people will reportedly attend.

His spokesman Jason MacDonald said Harper will promote commercial relations during his visit, as well as peace and security in the region, when he meets Israeli leaders and, later in the week, the king of Jordan, where Harper will be visiting a Syrian refugee camp.

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