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Over the last few years, the Herzliya Conference has become center stage for public debate on foreign policy and security in Israel. The previous prime minister, Ariel Sharon, bestowed this unique importance on the conference when he chose to introduce his disengagement plan there three years ago. But this year, something went wrong. The heads of the security and intelligence establishment did not appear at the conference, and the politicians who spoke mostly repeated empty phrases.

The atmosphere of the investigations hovered over the conference. Instead of discussing new ideas and arguing over policy, the politicians and security officials were busy preparing their testimony for one commission or another. The state itself is now under caution, and in such a situation, no one has any interest in taking a risk. After all, anything they say can be used against them.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to use his platform at the conference to "present to the public a report on the Iranian threat." The idea was a good one: Instead of making another speech that starts with the Palestinians and ends with poverty and health, Olmert wanted to focus on a central national issue. Olmert also wanted to provide a response to his rival, opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running an independent public relations campaign against Iran and is depicting the government as ineffectual and powerless.

But Olmert missed the opportunity, though he is not to blame; the attention of the media and the public was focused on the President's Residence yesterday. The prime minister's Herzliya speech, which in previous years attracted dozens of television crews from around the world, was not broadcast in full on any channel.

Olmert's primary message was a warning to the international community that the time to stop Iran is running out, that there is no more room for compromises and partial steps.

The prime minister said that the Iranian threat was evident in the financial, military and intelligence aid Tehran granted Palestinian terror groups, both directly and through Syria. Olmert said the threat was also manifested in Iranian support of Iraqi terror groups and the Hezbollah.

"This activity has created an opposing front, which includes,in varying intensities, all the permanent members of the UN Security Council; Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan; and other key countries in the West, such as Germany and Japan," he said.

He said that Israel, as well as the international community, would prefer to see the standoff worked out on a diplomatic level. Still, he warned against "turning a blind eye now, while ignoring reality, dragging one's feet, and attempting to reach dangerous compromises while avoiding taking clear steps."

Olmert hinted that if sanctions don't work, Israel is liable to take other action to thwart a threat to its existence. "We have the right to complete freedom of action," he said.

But even if the White House gives Israel the green light, the danger will be great: If an attack fails, Iran will look like the victim and Israel like the aggressor, and the Iranians will say, "We told you that the Zionist regime is the cause of the problems in the region and must be destroyed." It's not clear whether the Israeli leadership will want to take that gamble.