Stephen Harper lays cornerstone at Hula Valley bird sanctuary

Prime Minister Stephen Harper swoops into Israel's Hula Valley to visit a bird sanctuary that will house a centre named in his honour. The Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park is one of several tourist destinations Harper's delegation is visiting on the fourth day of his Middle East tour.

Harper also received honorary degree at Tel Aviv University on 4th day of Middle East tour

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.

Harper now 'dream of every Jewish mother'

Harper then arrived in Tel Aviv to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Tel Aviv. The award ceremony featured a string quartet and an opening speech by the school's president, Joseph Klafter, who lauded the partnerships and exchange programs between Canadian and Israeli universities. 

A number of other distinguished speakers took to the stage, continuing on the same theme of strengthening ties between the two nations and heaping praise upon Harper, including the mayor of Tel Aviv who joked that now that Harper is a doctor, he is "the dream of every Jewish mother." 

The speeches culminated with the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University announcing the new Stephen J. Harper Research Chair—to study challenges facing Israeli and Canadian society. 

The atmosphere took a more serious turn as Harper, wearing black and red university robes, sat down for an armchair discussion and question-and-answer session on the world economy and state of affairs in the Middle East.

He was asked about the Arab Spring and told the audience that he didn't share in the elation that first greeted the uprising in Egypt three years ago.

"I think we should all be chastened by the lessons over the last two or three years," Harper said.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm, unbridled enthusiasm, in much of the West for the revolution in Egypt and with very good reason. We were a little more cautious."

That caution was borne out, he said, as Egyptian elections were used not to foster democracy, but to move towards an authoritarian, Islamic state.

Harper also said he welcomes the stability that followed the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.

"At the same time, we understand if the new government is to be truly successful over time in Egypt, they do have to transition towards a democratic order and obviously with respect for human rights and the rule of law."

Harper also took a hard line with Iran for its violent and extremist regime and "frightening plans for nuclear weapons."

With regards to Syria, the prime minister said neither side looks good in the "sectarian" war. His comments come as world leaders meet in Switzerland for the Geneva II Syrian peace talks

Sea of Galilee among Harper's tourist stops

Earlier in the day, Harper was treated to 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.
Stephen Harper walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee as he visits Capernaum, Israel, on Wednesday. Harper is also visiting the West Bank and Jordan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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." 

The Church of the Beatitudes, a Roman Catholic Church, was built on the slope of the Mount in 1938 by the Franciscan Sisters. Its shape represents the eight beatitudes, the set of teachings said to have been delivered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount​. Pope Paul VI visited the site in 1964 and Pope John Paul II celebrated mass there in March 2000. 

Next, Harper will be heading 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.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press