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.”

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