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.