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Israel is the world's most threatened country. This gloomy conclusion was the main message delivered by experts at the Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel's National Strength and Security this week, sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. Participants sketched a chart of dangers and risks - and put Israel at the center, surrounded by malicious enemies, both near and far away, armed with weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of ballistic missiles threaten the home front, Hezbollah pounds away at the northern border and terror has become a daily scourge, conference participants concluded.

Yet this lugubrious picture was offset by findings from a research study carried out by a team of experts, headed by Dr. Shmuel Gordon. This team formulated an index of military strength in the Middle East, incorporating parameters of strength such as weapons systems, quality of personnel, infrastructure and strategy. The study establishes that Israel has a substantive military edge over its neighbors, and that its superiority has increased over the past decade, when threats appears to have multiplied. The research team examined Israel's military strength compared to a coalition comprised of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and also a portion (20%) of Iraq's forces (including Saddam Hussein's surface-to-surface missiles). The computations used in this index show Israel's military edge has grown over the past decade - its advantage over the coalition in 1992 (125 to 100, based on figures used in the study) has increased slightly (159 to 121).

In addition to this general index of military power, the research team computed a "quality index," which focuses on what are considered qualitative parameters, such as sophisticated weapons systems, trained personnel, coordination between branches of an army, control and supervision systems, leadership, and more. Israel's advance according to this index is yet more impressive. In terms of advanced weapons systems, the ratio between Israel and the coalition was 110:100 in 1992; in 2002, the ratio favors Israel 141:100.

The study also examined Israel's military advantage compared to individual countries. For instance, a study of Israel Defense Forces strengths compared to Syria gives Israel a 159:76 advantage, despite its neighbor's weapons procurement efforts.

Interestingly, the research team found that Israel's naval superiority has slipped 11 percent over the past decade. In contrast, its air force's superiority has increased 11 percent since 1992. Such findings provided a revealing backdrop to discussions and debates at the conference in which Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, from the air force, and his colleague, navy Commander-in-Chief Yedidia Ya'ari participated.

The argument between these two IDF officers reflected a recent debate within the General Staff in two areas. The first concerns the army's activities in far off places, a sphere described in IDF parlance as the "third circuit." The second issue involves strategic developments in the region, particularly the nuclear threat, which is likely to become more pressing in years ahead. Air force officers contend that only their branch of the IDF has the wherewithal to deploy forces in distant countries, such as Iran. But, the navy's commander-in-chief argues that when the air force is deployed at such long range, it begins to lose its efficiency. The number of fueling planes purchased by the air force is irrelevant, claimed Maj. Gen. Ya'ari at the conference. Planes cannot function efficiently some 1,500 or 2,000 kilometers from their bases. The navy, he continued, is far less limited: It can position ships or submarines in the Persian Gulf, and use them to fire missiles at Iran.

The General Staff, which includes only one naval officer, finds it difficult to revise what Ya'ari called its "security intellect." Conservatism emblematic of any organization can be found within the IDF; its top officers find it difficult to regard the navy as a vital military branch, in light of changing circumstances in the modern battlefield.

Nonetheless, some major generals on the General Staff are beginning to rate the navy as a prime strategic element in the IDF's future. They grasp the navy's significance with respect to the strategic threat posed by ballistic weapons that have nuclear warheads. Should it materialize, such a threat will require Israel to build up a second strike force, which would be a major element of its deterrent capability. The experience of the two superpowers during the Cold War period suggests the most efficient, flexible secondary strike ability is based on the navy, particularly submarines. Intelligence estimates suggest that nuclear threats to Israel could become a reality in the next decade, and such estimates encourage the navy to formulate procurement plans which feature the addition of three Dolphin submarines, along with three missile-bearing ships.

If the Herzliya conference made a significant contribution, it was this display of the early seeds of this strategic debate. The public caught a glimpse of a critical process of evaluation being undertaken by General Staff officers - this process will influence both the IDF's composition in the next decade, and also Israel's whole conception of national security.