Promising that the United States will continue to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged the Israeli leadership on Thursday to work harder to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

“There is a need and an opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution,” Gates said, during a press conference with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

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Gates said that he did not remember a period like today when Israeli-US security relations were so strong, particularly in the field of missile defense.

Gates arrived in the afternoon from Egypt and was met by an honor guard at the Defense Ministry. He said that his impression from his talks in Egypt was that the current leadership, led by Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi, took the peace treaty with Israel seriously and intended to maintain it.

He said that he offered the Egyptians US help in combating the continued smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip.

Gate’s visit here is his second trip to Israel as defense secretary. His first visit was in April 2007 when Amir Peretz still served as defense minister.

Gates is on a tour throughout the Middle East reported to be part of a farewell trip ahead of his planned retirement this summer.

Gates met later Thursday with President Shimon Peres and is scheduled to meet on Friday with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, following the latter’s return from Moscow.

During their hour-long meeting, Barak and Gates discussed ways to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in a changing Middle East, as well as ways to ensure Israeli security so the government will feel confident to move forward with the Palestinian peace track.

Israel is concerned by the possibility that radical Islamists will gain power in some of the countries undergoing revolutions – particularly in Egypt – and is seeking ways to ensure its qualitative military edge.

On Wednesday during his visit to Egypt, Gates reportedly voiced support for postponing elections.

“I would simply say that we believe it is important to allow those new elements that have become active in Egyptian politics, some of them for the first time, to have the time to develop political parties and to develop organization and structure,” Gates was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal, so that “they can play the same kind of leading role in Egypt in the future that they played in bringing about this change in the first place.”

Before Gates’s meeting with Barak, senior US defense official told reporters traveling with Gates that the defense secretary planned to urge Israel to make progress in peace talks with the PA as a way of getting ahead of the wave of unrest sweeping throughout the Middle East.

Although uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya were focusing for now on domestic political and economic grievances, that could change, the official suggested.

“Showing real progress on the peace track with the Palestinians would put them in a much better position for where the region’s likely to be in six months or a year from now,” the official said.