By Kevin Flower reporting from Herzliya
Every year the who's who of Israel's national security community gather in the tony seaside city of Herzliya for a three-day conference that organizers describe as "an informed debate on the most pressing issues on the national and international agendas."
The 12-year-old Herzliya Conference has in short time become one of the most important forums for open discussion of Israel's national security and foreign policy objectives.
In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used the conference to announce his support of the "road map" for peace with the Palestinians, and in 2006 his successor, Ehud Olmert, told conference attendees that he supported the creation of a Palestinian state and that Israel would have to give up parts of the West Bank if it were to remain a Jewish majority country.
In keeping with tradition, Israeli politicians and military leaders lined up to hear speeches and participate in panels at this week's conference, which ended Thursday.But discussion of the decades-old conflict with the Palestinians was not at the top of the agenda this time. Instead, panels with names like "The Ticking Clock: Dissuading and Changing Iran's Strategic Ambitions" and "The Shifting Balance of Power: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey in the Middle East" were the ones attracting attention.
Iran has been a major topic of conversation in previous gatherings, but as tensions over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program increase by the day and speculation about the possibility of an Israeli military strike becomes more fevered, any and all statements made in Herzliya were under intense scrutiny as conference attendees and journalists covering the event parsed every sentence from Israeli officials for clues about Israel's intentions.
It was the closing address by Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, that was among the most anticipated event on the conference calendar.
The Israeli former-general-turned-politician repeated his government's concerns that Iran's preparations for the development of a nuclear weapon are entering their final stages and will soon "enter the immunity zone from which the Iranian regime will be able to complete the program without any effective intervention."
While not explicit about when Iran might become immune, Barak suggested stopping it now is imperative.
"Dealing with a nuclear Iran will be far more complex, far more dangerous and far more expensive in blood and money than stopping it today" he said in a packed conference hall. "In other words, those who say in English 'later' may find later is too late."
Israel's vice prime minister and former military chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, seemed less worried about an "immunity zone" limiting a possible military option against Iran's nuclear program
"Any facility defended by a human being can be penetrated," he said. "Any facility in Iran can be hit, and I speak from experience as the IDF chief of staff."
Keeping descriptions of time frames and concrete steps vague, Yaalon said the clock is ticking and if countries of the world have any fears "they should be determined in the next few months to take steps against the nuclear action in Iran."
The head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, offered a somewhat more precise time line about Iran's nuclear program, saying he believes it would take scientists in the country a year to complete development of a nuclear weapon once the decision to proceed is made, but the country already has enough enriched material to build four nuclear weapons.
Iran's nuclear program, Kochavi argued, is driven by three goals: "regional hegemony," "deterrence" and "to become a regional and world player." But the country, he said, is under increasing pressure as a result of enhanced sanctions and some of the sweeping political changes taking place in the region.