Toronto prepares to walk with Israel

Netanyahu to speak to an estimated 15,000 walkers in Canadian city.

Residents of Toronto, Canada will get a chance to show their love for Israel on Sunday, when an expected 15,000 supporters will join the annual day-long UJA Walk with Israel. The walk, whose proceeds will go toward projects initiated by the Toronto Federation to help Ethiopian immigrants in Bat Yam, is going to have an extra attraction this year - Prime Minister Binymanin Netanyahu, who will speak to the walkers before they head off on their routes on Sunday morning.
"The timing is perfect," Amir Gissin, Israel's consul general in Toronto, said about Netanyahu's visit to Canada which began on Friday. "Canada is today a very close friend of Israel, with both a friendly government and opposition; we just had the premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, in Israel."
Netanyahu, who arrived in Toronto on Friday with his wife Sara, was expected to meet privately with members of the Jewish community, as well as a number of selected members of the media during his stay in the city.
"Looking at the list of the editors, broadcasters and writers he's meeting with, you see quite an impressive list and one that reflects the interest Canada has in Israel," said Gissin.
Netanyahu, making the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Canada since 1994, is scheduled to fly to Ottowa after launching the Walk on Sunday to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On Monday, Netanyahu and cabinet members Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein will meet with Canadian officials to discuss issues such as the expansion of trade and the joint commercialization of high-tech capacity in both countries.
Gissin said he expected anti-Israel demonstrations to take place during the walk,  but that they would pale compared to the level of support being shown for Israel by the mainstream Canadian population.
"When you look at the people who protest, you see very clearly that the demonstrators don't reflect the diversity of the  Canadian population," he said.
Downstairs, outside his office at the Israeli Consulate, about a dozen protesters were handing out leaflets and waving Palestinian flags in support of the Gaza aid flotilla ships which were making their way to Gaza.
"The fact that the Jewish community here can bring 15,000 people out to hear the Israeli prime minister and on the other side, you have maybe several hundred people against Israel, shows that they are failing to get mainstream support from wider segments of Canadian society."
According to Ted Sokolsky, the president of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the participation of Netanyahu has helped to raise the profile of the walk, which the UJA staff has spent months preparing.
"We've had to increase security and make some changes, but the excitement around it really reflects the strong Jewish community in Toronto," he said on Thursday.
"I'm incredibly proud to have the prime minister here," added Alan Winer, the chair of the UJA Federation in Toronto on Friday, a few hours before Netanyahu was due to land in Toronto. "I think it's really a tremendous matter of pride within the community to have him here."
It's a little scary to have a sitting prime minister launch the walk for the first time, admitted Weiner, due to possible ramped up protests by anti-Israel activists overjoyed at having such a big verbal target at Netanyahu.
"I was a little apprehensive about it, but we had conversations within the community and we said, you know this is the time to stand up for Israel," said Weiner. "This isn?t the time to back away or be afraid. It's time to say 'we're proud of Israel, with all its challenges and blemishes.'"
"People ask me all the time 'what can I do to make a difference?'. So I sent out an email saying many people ask what they can do to make a difference - well, Sunday is the time,  the walk is the place to show your support."
While many Torontonians will heed that call, some are less than enthusiastic about the security regulations surrounding Netanyahu's participation which has moved the opening  of the  walk to the indoor CNE Direct Energy arena instead of an open-field stadium, and is forcing participants to arrive far in advance to pass security checks.
"I'm a huge supporter of Israel, and we've been going on the walk for years, and love it," said 50-year-old Ken Gruber of Toronto, "but this year, I may just pass on it - it's too much hassle."