September 29, 2016 - 8:23 PM
TEL AVIV, Israel - A Canadian delegation headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has arrived in Israel for the state funeral of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president and prime minister.
Trudeau was joined by former prime minister Jean Chretien, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
Also in tow was Rafael Barak, Israel's ambassador to Canada, and representatives of Canadian advocacy groups such as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B'Nai Brith Canada and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee.
The Canadian delegation arrived in Israel early Friday for the funeral of Peres, who died Wednesday at age 93.
They were expected to be joined for the service in Jerusalem later Friday by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who opted for a commercial flight instead of travelling with Trudeau's delegation.
Harper's staunch support for Israel became a hallmark of his administration. In 2014 Harper declared in a memorable address to the Israeli parliament: "Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you."
Harper's support may have been more vocal, but Trudeau's has been no less unwavering, advocates for Israel say.
"Prime Minister Harper was known for being very vocal about his support for Israel. But from a foreign policy perspective and a government policy perspective … the Trudeau government has proven to be a great friend of Israel as well," said Martin Sampson, spokesman for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
In February 2008, eight months before he was first elected to the House of Commons, Trudeau travelled with a very small delegation, sponsored by Sampson's centre. The entourage included Montreal businessman Stephen Bronfman, who would go on to become his leading political fundraiser.
"It was trip that made an enormous impression on Mr. Trudeau," Sampson said. "I believe it's part of the reason he has remained so supportive of Israel."
Bronfman's grandfather, Samuel, who built his family's Montreal business empire, helped Peres broker a deal for surplus Canadian artillery in the 1950s. In the years to come, Peres would become close to successive prime ministers, including Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, as well as Harper.
Jasmin Habib, an Israeli-born political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said the large entourage that Trudeau assembled for Peres's funeral shows the high regard in which Canada's current prime minister holds the Jewish state.
"It's a continuation of what the policy was and has been for the last 20 years, certainly," she said.
Prior to their departure, Chretien called Peres a friend, "a great guy" and "a great public servant."
"When I quit, he gave me hell; (he) said, 'Winners never quit,' and he never quit," Chretien said.
Dion said Trudeau wanted the Canadian delegation to be non-partisan.
"The whole country of Canada is supporting the whole country of Israel and the prime minister wanted that to be very clear," Dion said.
Ambrose echoed Dion's message of unity ahead, calling Israel "a beacon of pluralism and democracy in a very difficult part of the world."
"All the more important for all of us, no matter what political party we come from, to attend these kind of events and honour a legacy like Shimon Peres."
Peres served two terms as Israeli prime minister and was also the country's president. He shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for negotiating the short lived Oslo Accords peace deal.
Other world figures planning to attend the funeral include U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Prince Charles and the presidents of France, Germany and Poland.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was also invited, but declined due to a family commitment.
Trudeau was also to have brief meetings Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
--By Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa and Kristy Kirkup in Tel Aviv
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016