JERUSALEM — Throngs of Israelis literally reached out to touch Stephen Harper on Tuesday as he basked in a hero’s welcome at the sacred Western Wall, shortly after he and his Israeli counterpart insisted their countries do, indeed, have differences of opinion.
The prime minister’s jam-packed second full day in Israel included a morning chat with President Shimon Peres, as well as a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and six Canadian cabinet ministers, including John Baird and Jason Kenney.
Netanyahu and his wife then accompanied Harper and his wife Laureen to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum for a harrowing look back at the horrors perpetrated on the Jews by Nazi Germany.
“They are remembered always, in our hearts, in our prayers and most importantly in our resolve,” Harper wrote in the museum guest book. “Never again.”
The loquacious Israeli leader explained much of what the Harpers saw at the museum, an elegant building designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie that’s situated on a sunny Israeli hilltop speckled with majestic cedars.
Netanyahu spoke at length at every stop of the tour, explaining the exhibits to the Harpers. At the end of the visit, they stopped in the Hall of Names, where the names of Holocaust victims are permanently preserved.
A 10-metre-high conical structure overhead holds photos of hundreds of victims, many of them young children.
But the day’s most remarkable moment came at the Western Wall, where Harper — fresh from a speech Monday that was effusive in its support for Israel — received the sort of affectionate reverence that generally evades him back home.
Just after sunset, the prime minister was greeted by hundreds of onlookers who cheered and reached out their hands to touch him as he made his way from his vehicle to the wall.
A beaming Harper stopped and chatted briefly with the throngs before solemnly observing the wall. After he made his way back to his motorcade, a woman in the crowd was heard to shriek: “He touched my hand!”
There was a far more crass element to the visit, however, when a Conservative MP pleaded with a prime ministerial aide to be allowed into the Western Wall ceremony from the wrong side of the barricades.
“It’s the re-election,” said Mark Adler, a Toronto-area MP who flew to Israel with the prime minister’s delegation wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his name.
“This is the million-dollar shot.”
Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu acknowledged that Harper disagrees with him on the issue of the Israeli settlements in what Palestine considers disputed territory. Harper has steadfastly refused to clarify the government’s position on the issue, but the Foreign Affairs Department website says it deems Israel’s occupation of the territories to be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
“I guarantee you that’s the case,” Netanyahu said when asked if Harper parts ways with him on the issue.
Harper, meantime, chided the media for expecting him to publicly single out Israel for criticism on its stance on the territories, expressing confusion that he was asked to do so even while in Ramallah. He suggested questions from the media after he met with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, should have focused on Palestinian efforts to advance the peace process.
Harper offered $66 million in new aid to the Palestinians during his foray into the West Bank.
But on Tuesday, the prime minister spoke of Israel’s isolation in the troubled region.
“The one lesson I think we have learned is that when somebody is a minority, particularly a small minority in the world, one goes out of one’s way to embrace them, not to single them out for criticism,” he said.
“That’s a fundamental Canadian ethic.”