TORONTO – What a difference eight years make.

Back in September 2002, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, then a Likud backbencher, was forced to cancel a speech at Concordia University in Montreal when anti-Israel protesters stormed the lecture hall and clashed with police.

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On Sunday, Netanyahu, returning to Canada as the leader of Israel, received a welcome in Toronto fit for a rock star as he spoke before the start of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto’s 42nd annual Walk for Israel.

“The ties between Israel and Canada have never been stronger,” he said to thunderous applause from an adoring crowd of around 7,000 people who arrived early in the morning in Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, ahead of the 7-km. walk to raise money for Toronto UJA projects to help Ethiopian immigrants in Bat Yam.

“I met the premier of Ontario [Dalton McGuinty] in Jerusalem last week and he promised me a warm welcome, and I see he lived up to it,” Netanyahu said, adding that the last time a sitting prime minister was in Toronto was in 1978, when Menachem Begin visited, and the last visit to Canada by a prime minister was in 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin.

There was a festive atmosphere in the auditorium with balloons, and an equal display of Israeli and Canadian flags being waved and worn.

Netanyahu thanked the Toronto Jewish community for their hospitality, and disclosed that he and his wife, Sara, had been able to slip out of their hotel undetected, with security in tow, for a low-key Shabbat afternoon walk through the city.

Before flying to Ottawa for his meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Netanyahu praised his counterpart for being “an unwavering friend of Israel.”

“He’s been a great champion of Israel’s right to defend itself and he stands against all the efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state,” he said.

Netanyahu also lauded the Toronto Jewish Federation for its annual walk for Israel.

“You show us that we are not alone. Even though we are thousands of miles away, we know that you stand by our side.”

Speaking before Netanyahu, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Kent referred to a recent magazine article in The Economist whose headline read: “Canada and Israel – Unlikely Allies.”

“With all due respect, the title couldn’t be more wrong,” Kent said. “As vibrant and democratic states in which the rule of law and human rights are observed and revered, Canada and Israel are the likeliest and the most natural of allies.”

Other speakers at the pre-walk launch included Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who thanked the Toronto Jewish community for their support and actions when he was a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union.

Netanyahu introduced IDF soldier Jonathan Feder to the audience, the 23-year-old Canadian immigrant who was offered a trip home to visit his family by the prime minister earlier this month, when they met at an IDF exercise in the North.

“I want to thank you for defending the one and only Jewish state,” Netanyahu told native son Feder, who received a standing ovation from the audience.

After Netanyahu told the audience to walk with purpose and clarity, the marchers filed out of the hockey arena into a beautiful sunny May day for their leisurely, picturesque walk through the footpaths of the city.

Organizers estimated that 15,000 walkers joined the joyous procession, replete with plenty of strollers, flags and spirited singing.

More than 150 Toronto police officers were on patrol throughout the route to protect the walkers against any protests. In past years, small groups of pro-Palestinian protesters organized demonstrations that passed without incident.

UJA organizers had told the crowds to meet any protests by walking tall and ignoring the demonstrators.

Avi, 35, who walking with his two pre-teen children, said he was impressed by Netanyahu’s speech and his reference to the important relationship between the Jews of the Diaspora and in Israel.

“It’s vital to state how really connected we are to each other,” he said, adding that his son Samuel, seven, had been extremely patient in the two-hour wait between the time walkers had to be in the arena and the time Netanyahu spoke.

“He realized that this was something really special, having the Israeli prime minister here and being able to see him,” Avi said.

Mark Eltis, a 32-year-old native of Montreal who moved to Toronto for college, was participating in his first walk. He said that Netanyahu had “hit the nail on the head” with his speech.

Robin Kislavsky, walking with her husband, daughter and sister, said she had been going on the walks her whole life, “but I’m not going to tell you how long that is.

“It was incredible opportunity to bear witness to the prime minister’s amazing speech, and an opportunity to show him the support that Canada and Toronto have for Israel,” Kislavsky said. “It’s an incredible, cohesive community.”

That cohesiveness was displayed very clearly on Sunday.

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