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Harper arrives in Israel on inaugural visit

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has arrived in Israel to kick off his inaugural visit to the Middle East.

Harper and a sizable entourage landed in Tel Aviv under sunny skies at Ben Gurion International Airport.

He and his wife, Laureen, were greeted by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign affairs minister, and by Vivian Bercovici, Canada's ambassador-designate to the Jewish state.

The Harpers travelled in a motorcade along a winding, scenic highway to Mount of Olives to take in its spectacular views of Old Jerusalem. At various points along the way, children stood at the side of the road to watch the motorcade go by.

As the sun beamed in their eyes, Haim Cohen, a research fellow at the University of Haifa, pointed out the many points of interest to the couple, the most imposing being the Dome of the Rock.

The Mount of Olives is important in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, and has been used a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years. It's named after olive groves that once grew on its hillside.

After their arrival in Jerusalem, a welcoming ceremony will be held at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

The prime minister left Ottawa yesterday with a large entourage in tow on a six-day trip that will include visits to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

Harper is travelling with six cabinet ministers, a senator, 30 top business executives that include David Asper, Philip Reichmann and Air Canada CEO and president Calin Rovinescu. Twenty-one rabbis and a priest are also along for the ride.

In total, there are just over 100 people in the entourage, and Canadian taxpayers will be covering the entire cost of travel and accommodations for at least 30 of them.

Stephen Harper has been a passionate supporter of Israel, and on Monday will have the honour of becoming the first Canadian prime minister to address the Knesset — Israel's parliament.

Spokesman Jason MacDonald says Harper will promote commercial relations, as well as peace and security in the region, when he meets with Israeli leaders and, later in the week, with the King of Jordan.

The Canadian Press

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