JERUSALEM, Israel -- Israel rolled out the red carpet to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his wife, Laureen, and a 250-member delegation Sunday that includes government ministers and parliamentarians.
Harper, an evangelical Christian, has been one of Israel's staunchest supporters. Since taking office in 2006, the prime minister has backed Israel in every military operation and taken a decisive stance against efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Some say his strong support for Israel factored into Canada's failed bid to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
"Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a great friend of the State of Israel," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "He has strongly opposed attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and has taken a praiseworthy moral stand against these attempts."
In a world that often demonizes Israel unfairly, Harper's unshakeable support has fostered a warm personal friendship with Netanyahu, who welcomed him on behalf of all Israelis.
"Prime Minister Harper, my good friend Stephen, welcome to Jerusalem. It's a pleasure for Sarah and me to welcome you and Laureen here to our country. It's a pleasure for the ministers of the Israeli government and the people of Israel to welcome your ministers and your entire delegation to Israel," Netanyahu said.
"I have to say, Stephen, that you are a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people," he continued. "I'm not just saying that. I mean it deeply from the bottom of my heart and I speak for all the people of Israel."
During his four-day stay, Harper will be the recipient of several awards. Tel Aviv University will award him an honorary doctorate for "his exemplary conduct as a prominent world leader who promotes freedom, human rights, and rule of law," the university's press release read in part.
Harper and his wife will also be guests of honor at a dinner hosted by Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael-Jewish National Fund Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, he will take part in a cornerstone ceremony in the Hula Valley for the Visitor and Education Center that will be named after him in honor of his friendship and support of Israel.
Netanyahu praised Harper for his "great moral leadership."
"The world is often cynical and hypocritical, and you have shown great moral leadership. When it comes to fighting terrorism, you know that there cannot be any politically correct double-talk, but only unequivocal condemnation and united international action," Netanyahu said.
Harper's first official state visit since taking office in 2006 is also the first in 14 years by a sitting prime minister.