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.RELATED:Netanyahu in Toronto: 'Israel will never give up power to defend itself'Netanyahu offers soldier free lift to CanadaOn 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 weekand 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 wasin Toronto was in 1978, when Menachem Begin visited, and the last visitto Canada by a prime minister was in 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin.There was a festive atmosphere in the auditorium with balloons, and anequal 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 oftheir hotel undetected, with security in tow, for a low-key Shabbatafternoon walk through the city. Before flying to Ottawa for his meetings with Canadian Prime MinisterStephen Harper, Netanyahu praised his counterpart for being “anunwavering friend of Israel.”“He’s been a great champion of Israel’s right to defend itself and hestands against all the efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state,” hesaid.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 Kentreferred to a recent magazine article in TheEconomist whose headline read: “Canada and Israel – UnlikelyAllies.”“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 humanrights are observed and revered, Canada and Israel are the likeliestand the most natural of allies.”Other speakers at the pre-walk launch included Public Diplomacy andDiaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who thanked the TorontoJewish community for their support and actions when he was a Prisonerof Zion in the Soviet Union.Netanyahu introduced IDF soldier Jonathan Feder to the audience, the23-year-old Canadian immigrant who was offered a trip home to visit hisfamily by the prime minister earlier this month, when they met at anIDF 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 fromthe audience.After Netanyahu told the audience to walk with purpose and clarity, themarchers filed out of the hockey arena into a beautiful sunny May dayfor 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 theroute to protect the walkers against any protests. In past years, smallgroups of pro-Palestinian protesters organized demonstrations thatpassed 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 wasimpressed by Netanyahu’s speech and his reference to the importantrelationship between the Jews of the Diaspora and in Israel.“It’s vital to state how really connected we are to each other,” hesaid, adding that his son Samuel, seven, had been extremely patient inthe two-hour wait between the time walkers had to be in the arena andthe time Netanyahu spoke.“He realized that this was something really special, having the Israeliprime minister here and being able to see him,” Avi said.Mark Eltis, a 32-year-old native of Montreal who moved to Toronto forcollege, was participating in his first walk. He said that Netanyahuhad “hit the nail on the head” with his speech.Robin Kislavsky, walking with her husband, daughter and sister, saidshe had been going on the walks her whole life, “but I’m not going totell you how long that is.“It was incredible opportunity to bear witness to the prime minister’samazing speech, and an opportunity to show him the support that Canadaand Toronto have for Israel,” Kislavsky said. “It’s an incredible,cohesive community.”That cohesiveness was displayed very clearly on Sunday.