OTTAWA - Shimon Peres thanked Stephen Harper for his staunch support of Israel, and Canada for its 60 years of friendship as the Israeli president began a full state visit Monday.
"I sense that Canada is always positive, never indifferent, never neutral," Peres said during his official welcome by the Governor General at Rideau Hall.
The Nobel laureate has been a fixture in Israeli politics since 1959, serving in 12 cabinets and twice as prime minister. He is currently the country's head of state — a largely ceremonial role — but remains an influential figure and a perceived leavening voice to hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The president's five-day trip to Canada began as Netanyahu called an early national election amid talk of an "existential threat" to Israel from Iran's nuclear program.
Peres has expressed reservations about a pre-emptive strike against Iran, and his language on arriving in Canada was that of the diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his work with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the Oslo Accords.
"Canada offers a new beginning, building bridges and closing gaps," Peres, who turns 89 in August, said at Rideau Hall.
"Israel, which is a start-up nation, breathes your air with real thirst."
Escorted up the Rideau Hall drive in brilliant spring sunshine by four mounted RCMP officers, Peres reviewed a 100-strong honour guard under a booming 21-gun military salute.
He's to plant an Eastern White Pine — known by the Iroquois as the Tree of Peace — on the vice-regal grounds Tuesday.
On Parliament Hill, the Israeli president was greeted by the prime minister in the rotunda of the Hall of Honour, and the two then moved to Harper's office for what he called a "chat."
While the camera shutters clattered, Peres called Canada "an extraordinary friend" before praising Harper personally.
"Your remarks about Israel are outstanding. It really moved our hearts of our people," Pere said.
It was not clear specifically what Peres was referring to, but he arrives in Ottawa just days after Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told a Jewish audience that "Israel has no greater friend in the world today than Canada."
Indeed, the Conservative government has drawn considerable criticism for dropping Canada's traditional, self-styled "honest broker" role that supported both Palestinian and Israeli ambitions in the region.
Peres drew no distinction in his public remarks about Canada's past and current positions. He harkened back to his first visit to Canada 60 years ago and "the deep friendship that has existed between our peoples from our first day of independence."
"Since then I carry in my heart the feeling that Canada is a continent of friendliness, displaying support and care," said Peres.
A readout from the Prime Minister's Office following Harper's private tete-at-tete stated he and Peres "discussed the uncertain security environment and the importance of diplomacy as the primary instrument for peace and security."
The president appears likely to get more friendly hearings during his Canadian tour.
He met interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae later Monday.
"The Liberal party remains committed to a secure and democratic Israel, a stable and democratic Palestinian state and to the ultimate goal of peace in the region," Rae said in a release.
"We believe that direct negotiations are the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to build peace in the region.
"President Peres and I have met several times since my first visit to Israel in 1979, and I have always found him to be a person of great experience, wisdom and candour. I look forward to continued frank and productive exchanges today and in the future."
New Democrat Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the official Opposition, meets with Peres on Tuesday.
Both Mulcair and Rae are among the most staunchly pro-Israel leaders of their respective parties — if not the most — in many years.
Peres, whose tour includes stops in Ontario and Quebec, is the second high-profile Israeli politician to visit Canada in recent weeks, following Netanyahu's brief stop in Ottawa in March.
Netanyahu came looking for support for the idea of a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear program, which is feared to be building nuclear weapons.
But Harper, despite echoing Netanyahu's concerns about Iran's intentions, expressed the desire for a peaceful solution.
Peres has repeatedly spoken of the need for an international, diplomatic solution and has openly questioned whether a pre-emptive strike would do anything more than delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons by a couple of years.
<em>Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili answers to a question during a press conference following talks between Iran and six world powers to discuss the Islamic republic's disputed atomic program on October 1, 2009 in Geneva. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran meets six world powers in Geneva and approves in principle a plan to send 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be made into special fuel for a Tehran reactor making medical materials.
<em>International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors arrive at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran early on October 25, 2009. Four inspectors of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Tehran to check Iran's controversial second uranium enrichment plant. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> U.N. nuclear experts inspect a newly disclosed enrichment plant being built inside a mountain bunker.
<em>Herman M.G. Nackaerts, who led the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors team to Iran, speaks to journalists upon his arrival on October 29, 2009 at Vienna airport from Iran. (SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran tells the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it wants fresh nuclear fuel for a reactor in Tehran before it will agree to ship enriched uranium stocks to Russia and France, according to U.N. officials.
<em>A picture shows the reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran on August 21, 2010 during a ceremony initiating the transfer of Russia-supplied fuel to the facility after more than three decades of delay. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Tehran says will not send enriched uranium abroad but will consider swapping it for nuclear fuel within Iran.
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<em>Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili looks on during a press conference closing nuclear talks on December 7, 2010 in Geneva. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran rejects key parts of the deal to send abroad for processing most of its enrichment material.
<em>NATANZ, IRAN - APRIL 9: A general view of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, is seen on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran begins making higher-grade nuclear fuel, enriched to a level of 20 percent, at the Natanz plant.
<em>Delegates watch the opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors meeting at agency headquarters in Vienna on September 27, 2010. (SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>An IAEA report suggests for the first time Iran might be actively chasing nuclear weapons capability rather than merely having done so in the past.
<em>Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Celso Amorim, gestures during a press conference at Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, on May 18, 2010, on the nuclear agreement between Brazil, Iran and Turkey. (EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran, Brazil and Turkey sign a nuclear fuel swap deal. Iran says it has agreed to transfer low-enriched uranium to Turkey within a month in return for higher-enriched nuclear fuel for a medical research reactor. The deal is not implemented due to lack of U.S., French and Russian involvement.
<em>U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement regarding a United Nations Security Council vote on new sanctions for Iran in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on June 9, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images)</em><br><br>U.N. Security Council votes to expand sanctions against Iran to undermine its banking and other industries.
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<em>Former Iranian president and head of Iran's Assembly of Experts, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivers a speech during a meeting of the top clerical body in Tehran on September 14, 2010, urging Iranian officials against dismissing the sanctions as 'jokes', saying that the Islamic republic was facing its worst ever 'assault' from the global community. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>The EU imposes tighter sanctions on Iran.
<em>Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi speaks to journalists after the Conference on Disarmament at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Salehi has called for other countries to chose engagement over confrontation in resolving their differences over his nation's nuclear program. (AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott)</em><br><br>Iran's nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi says Iran will use domestically produced uranium concentrates, known as yellowcake, for the first time at a nuclear facility, cutting reliance on imports of the ingredient for nuclear fuel.
<em>Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili (R) gestures next to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in the foyer of the conference center near the Swiss mission to the United Nations on December 6, 2010 in Geneva. (ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Talks begin in Geneva between Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the discussions on behalf of big powers.
<em>US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks about Iran during a press conference with Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa following their meeting at the US State Department in Washington, DC, February 3, 2010. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>World powers fail to prise any change from Iran in talks, with the EU and U.S. calling the discussions disappointing and saying no further meetings are planned.
<em>Demonstrators hold effigies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) and Iran's religiuous leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a protest outside the 66th UN General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22, 2011.</em><br><br>Russia and China join Western powers in telling Iran its "consistent failure" to comply with U.N. resolutions "deepened concerns" about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program.
<em>International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief inspector Herman Nackaerts arrives with his team at the Vienna airport from Iran, on February 22, 2012. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran allows IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts rare access to a facility for developing advanced uranium enrichment machines during a tour of the country's main atomic sites, an Iranian envoy says.
<em>The head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Fereydoun Abbasi Davani (2nd L) and Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko (R) shake hands during a ceremony in the southern port city of Bushehr on September 12, 2011, to celebrate hooking up Iran's first nuclear power plant in Bushehr to the national grid, supplying 400 megawatts of its 1,000 megawatt capacity. (AMIR POURMAND/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant begins to provide electricity to the national grid, IRNA reports.
<em>Alireza Jafarzadeh arranges satellite images and maps allegedly showing location of an industrial site near Tehran that produces components for centrifuges used to enrich uranium, before a press conference in Washington, DC, on April 7, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>IAEA confirms Iran began refining uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent at Fordow.
<em>Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample of the third generation centrifuge for uranium enrichment during a ceremony to mark the National Nuclear Day day in Tehran on April 9, 2010. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran proclaims nuclear advances, including new centrifuges able to enrich uranium much faster. The next day Iran proposes a resumption of nuclear talks with world powers.
<em>Hans Blix(R), former general director of the United Nations (UN) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Robert Kelley, former IAEA chief inspector in Iraq chat February 21, 2012 before a panel discussion on Iran's nuclear capabilities on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Senior U.N. inspectors end a second round of talks in Tehran, without success and without inspecting a military site at Parchin.
<em>International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano (C) looks on during an IAEA board of governors meeting at the UN atomic agency headquarters in Vienna on March 5, 2012. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran has tripled its monthly production of higher-grade enriched uranium and the IAEA has "serious concerns" about possible military dimensions to Tehran's activities, IAEA head Yukiya Amano says.
<em>European Union's Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton gives a press conference after a meeting on April 14, 2012 as Iran and six world powers open talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear programme in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton accepts Iran's offer of new talks, after a year's standstill. U.S. President Barack Obama says the announcement offers a diplomatic chance to defuse the crisis and quiet the "drums of war". Iran says it will let U.N. nuclear inspectors visit Parchin but diplomats note a proviso saying access to the site hinges on a broader agreement on outstanding issues.
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<em>Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waits for the arrival of Iraqi Shiite Vice President Khudayr al-Khuzaie prior to a meeting in Tehran on March 10, 2012. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Ahmadinejad says the Islamic state will not surrender its nuclear rights "even under the most difficult pressure".
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