U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened her Israel visit today with a tour of the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial. She showered praise on the new Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership saying that it has “expressed its desire for a peaceful future with Israel.”

Rice declared: "We will ask of our partners and our friends in Israel that Israel continue to make the hard decisions that must be taken in order to promote peace and…. the emergence of a democratic Palestinian state."

Rice sees the proposed expulsion of Israeli residents from Jewish Gaza as a means of getting the region “back onto the road-map,” President Bush’s stalled Mid-East initiative. “I most especially want to bring the personal commitment of President Bush and my own personal commitment to this process, because this is a time of opportunity, and it is a time that we must seize,” Rice told reporters at Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

According to Channel 2 TV news, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Rice after their meeting, “If the Palestinians do not do everything to halt the smuggling of weapons through tunnels, close the tunnels, close the weapons workshops, gather up illegal weapons - we would simply be giving the violent groups time to regroup and then carry out terror attacks that could collapse the whole process," he said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said prior to his meeting with Rice that her visit “will contribute to the friendly relations between the two countries and the peace process that we so much want to advance.”

Rice responded by telling Sharon that this is a period of great responsibility alongside the “optimism” existing at this time. She added that U.S.- Israel relations were on a solid footing “because we share not just interests but values.” She said her goal was to "try to advance the cause of peace and to overcome the scourge of terrorism."

Before arriving in Israel, Rice announced that she will not be attending Tuesday’s summit meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, indicating that she preferred to see Sharon and PA leader Mahmud Abbas make progress as free of foreign mediation as possible.

“I hope we would all get into a mind-set that says if the parties are able to continue to move on their own, that's the very best outcome," Rice told reporters while en route to Ankara, Turkey, the stop before Israel.

Rice is scheduled to meet with PA chief Mahmoud Abbas and PA -Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei in Ramallah tomorrow.