JERUSALEM – One day, it was throngs of jubilant Israelis reaching out to touch Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The next, it was flocks of cranes close enough to touch descending upon a swampy valley to put on a show for Harper and his wife, Laureen, who delighted in the spectacle.
The Harpers visited the bird sanctuary in Israel’s picturesque Hula Valley, one that will soon be renamed in honour of the prime minister due to his full-throated support of the Jewish state since he came to power eight years ago.
Along with some members of the Canadian delegation in the Middle East this week with Harper, the prime ministerial couple was pulled around the sanctuary by a tractor on Wednesday as they sat in an open-air trailer on a hazy afternoon.
They marvelled at the tens of thousands of common cranes being fed simultaneously — and very noisily — by sanctuary workers. At one point, Harper stood up in the vehicle and peered through binoculars to get an even closer look.
The couple laughed when the vehicle pulling the media pool got stuck in the mud, particularly when one reporter jokingly called out for Harper’s help. The Harpers and some members of the delegation, including Sen. Linda Frum, Development Minister Christian Paradis and Trade Minister Ed Fast, waved cheerfully to the media after a brief ground-breaking ceremony.
Fresh off a hero’s welcome by Israeli worshippers at the Western Wall on Tuesday night, Harper flew north in a military Black Hawk helicopter to take in the splendours of one of the country’s most popular and spiritually significant areas around the Sea of Galilee.
The sea attracts Christian pilgrims since the New Testament describes Jesus performing miracles on its shores.
The first stop for the Harpers was the 3,000-year-old village of Capernaum, where they visited ancient ruins and the site of first synagogue on the shores of the sea.
According to the Bible, Capernaum was chosen by Jesus to be the centre of his public ministry in Galilee after leaving Nazareth. Evangelists believe Jesus went on the Sabbath at the synagogue there.
Franciscan monks served as tour guides as the Harpers wandered to the stony seaside on their first visit to the Middle East. A plaintively meowing cat trailed them on their tour, perhaps mindful of the couple’s legendary love of felines.
The next stop was the ancient Church of the Beatitudes, also overlooking the Sea of Galilee. On the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus is said to have preached the “Sermon on the Mount.” The church was built on the slope of the Mount in 1938.
After the Harpers posed for media photographs, two nuns handed an iPad to a journalist and asked him to snap a picture of them with Laureen Harper. The three women beamed for the camera.
The Harpers next headed to the Hula Valley to visit the bird sanctuary. The audience of about 200 people, made up at least partly by members of the Canadian delegation, chanted “Harper! Harper!” as he entered a makeshift conference hall at the sanctuary.
The Canadian Jewish community had raised about $5.7 million on Dec. 1 to help refurbish the sanctuary. Israel’s new ambassador, Rafi Barak, said in a recent interview that the Israeli government views the wetlands preserve as “our symbolic way to say thanks” to Harper for the public support he’s offered their country over the years.
Later Wednesday, Harper is receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Tel Aviv and taking part in a question-and-answer session on trade and commerce, where he’s expected to delve into foreign policy.
Harper then travels to Amman, Jordan, where he’ll meet with the King of Jordan and visit a Syrian refugee camp.