POLITICS

Stephen Harper lays cornerstone at Hula Valley bird sanctuary

01/22/2014 04:42 EST | Updated 03/23/2014 05:59 EDT
Prime Minister Stephen Harper swooped down into the Hula Valley in Israel today to visit a bird sanctuary that will soon house a centre named in his honour.

The Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park is one of many tourist destinations the Canadian delegation is scheduled to visit on the fourth day of the Middle East tour.

Harper also laid down a cornerstone for the new visitor centre, according to a tweet from Conservative MP Peter Kent, who is travelling with the prime minister as part of the official delegation.

It will be called — take a breath — the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre. When finished, it will be a 4,000-square-metre, state-of-the-art scientific and educational facility that will "link Israel with scientific communities and travellers from around the world," according to the Jewish National Fund's website.

The JNF is an organization spearheading environmental rehabilitation in Israel, including redevelopment of the Hula Valley. The Canadian Jewish community had raised about $5.7 million at the annual Negev Dinner in December to help refurbish the sanctuary in northern Israel.

Israel's new ambassador to Canada, Rafi Barak, told The Canadian Press 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.

Earlier in the day, Harper was treated to other marvels of Israel, including the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

Fresh off his hero's welcome by Israeli worshippers at the Western Wall, Harper flew north in a military helicopter to take in the splendours of one of the country's most popular and picturesque tourist areas.

After a helicopter carrying Harper and his wife, Laureen, landed at an airport just north of the Sea of Galilee, they were ushered into a waiting SUV and taken to a tour of ancient ruins and to a synagogue.

The chopper had travelled about 150 kilometres and was accompanied by a second helicopter carrying some of the media entourage.

The Sea of Galilee attracts Christian pilgrims since the New Testament describes Jesus performing miracles on its shores. The Mount of Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee's north shore marks the site where Jesus is believed to have given his famous "Sermon on the Mount."

Harper will end the day in Tel Aviv, where he'll receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Tel Aviv. Harper will then travel to Amman, Jordan, where he'll meet with the King of Jordan and visit a Syrian refugee camp.

Harper is on his inaugural visit to the Middle East and has received a warm welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials, and everyday Israelis too, although the press has not afforded his trip as much coverage as those by other foreign leaders.

At a private dinner Tuesday night, Netanyahu called Harper a "Canadian rock star" — and Harper did his best to look the part, by taking to the stage to sing a few songs, including the Beatles' A Little Help from My Friends, and to teach the crowd Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline.