The consensus among Israel's political and military leaders as we near our 60th anniversary of independence is that modern Israel has never been as threatened as it is today. Given the wars of survival it had to fight in its first quarter century, that's a profoundly troubling assessment. Although Syria has all of Israel within missile range, Hizbullah has rearmed and the quantities of weaponry flowing into Gaza risk turning a major irritant into a grave concern, the key focus of potentially devastating confrontation is the Islamist regime in Iran - itself, of course, the key state player behind Hizbullah and the Gaza Islamic radicals. One might be tempted to disregard the annihilatory rhetoric from Teheran were it not accompanied by the relentless drive for a nuclear bomb. One might seek to downplay the nuclear drive were it not for the rhetoric. But the combination of Iran's incitement to genocide and its determined acquisition of the tools to carry out the deed has created a consensus in leadership here - not absolute unanimity, but certainly a strong majority view - that Israel's future well-being necessitates the thwarting of this Iranian regime's nuclear aspirations. The widespread belief among Israel's leaders as recently as Israel's 59th birthday was that, one way or another, the Bush administration would halt the mullahs - either by galvanizing concerted, biting international sanctions or by force. Some of Israel's most highly placed officials, only too aware of the negligible impact sanctions were having on Iran, indeed, believed until a few months ago that the US might be resorting to military action right about now - late spring to early summer of 2008. That the sanctions are not hurting Iran is plainly still the case, notably with oil prices at $100 a barrel compared to $25 just a few short years ago. Every small rise in oil prices yields hundreds of millions of dollars for the Iranian exchequer. Thus the quadrupling in price massively outweighs the limited impact of international sanctions - sanctions that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain described in his interview with The Jerusalem Post last month as "remarkable" in their weakness. But the notion of a Bush presidency's resort to military action was shattered by the US National Intelligence Estimate late last year that highlighted an asserted halt in the Iranian nuclear weapons program dating back to 2003. That report prompted a hurried visit to the US by leading Israeli intelligence personnel. Misgivings over its thrust have been expressed by the man under whose watch it was compiled, Michael McConnell. And it may be that a revised document is issued a few months from now. But the effect of the NIE was to deny the Bush administration legitimacy for military action. President Bush, it has been belatedly accepted in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, will almost certainly not hit Iran. The sense in Israel is that McCain recognizes the gravity of the Iranian threat, and that if he is elected, Israel will not be left alone to meet a global challenge that much of the globe refuses to internalize, in which Israel is only the most directly and urgently affected. The belief, further, is that the US, if all else fails, could set back Iran's nuclear program by two to five years by striking at several dozen key targets in a daylong air offensive. There is no such assessment as regards a Democratic president. Indeed, there is concern that a Democratic administration would neither use military action against Iran nor support Israel in so doing. This constitutes a major complication for Israel since the IAF would need to overfly Iraq if it felt it had no alternative but to act. Israel does believe that it, too, has the military capabilities to set back the Iranian program by two or more years, but such intervention would be more complex for Israel than for the US, and its feasibility depends on a safe and efficient route to and from the target areas. THE PLETHORA of assessments in recent years as to when, precisely, Iran will attain the capability to build one or more nuclear devices has led to derision in some quarters, with critics accusing intelligence analysts of crying wolf as landmark dates came and went and the Iranian program was still plainly incomplete. In truth, Iran has had to grapple with various unexpected difficulties. But it is now able to surmount such obstacles, and by most estimates, including that of the NIE, will have enough enriched uranium for a bomb in 2009-2010. It will also have the surface-to-surface missile capability to deliver such a bomb anywhere in Israel and, assuming continued steady progress on its solid-fuel missiles, across Europe too. Iran's strikingly undeterred progress is, ironically, being made despite President Bush's explicit determination to prevent judgment day weapons reaching regimes that cannot be trusted not to use them. It is being made despite the heightened awareness, after 9/11, of the degree of ruthlessness to which Islamic extremists will sink. And it is being made in contrast to the success that the international community had been having in curbing proliferation with the likes of Ukraine, South Africa and Libya. Iran has been emboldened by the spinelessness of the international response to its program and to the accompanying threats it has made. And it has been emboldened by the faltering handling of North Korea's program, which has encouraged it to believe that it faces no immediate danger even as it proceeds to defy the international community. The sense in Israel is not that time has already run out, but that time is certainly running short. There is a strong body of opinion, in the political, military and intelligence echelons, that Damascus offers a potential means to deter Iran: If Israel can seriously engage Syria, and ultimately weaken the Syrian-Iranian alliance, a lonelier Iran may be less inclined to risk a full-speed-ahead approach to the nuclear program, and could potentially suspend some of its activity. It is at least partially in this context that intermittent comments by the prime minister, defense minister and others about a desire for a dialogue with Syria should be understood. A peace treaty with Syria, of course, would involve relinquishing the Golan Heights. But those who favor the attempt at a dialogue believe viable terms could be reached as regards Israel's security on that front, and that given the alternatives, an accommodation with Syria that curbs Iran is well worth exploring. But the Bush administration is opposed to Israel's legitimating of an axis-of-evil state, Syria, via direct negotiations. To date, evidently, Israel has been disinclined to defy that opposition. In the light of the Iranian threat, runs the counterargument, Israel should be making plain that it cannot hold to a Washington veto on talks with Damascus. SOME YEARS ago, Israeli intelligence received word of a North Korean shipment heading to Iran with material related to the nuclear drive. In turn, it alerted its British counterparts, and the ship was intercepted. It turned out to be carrying a cargo of relevance not to the bombmaking program, as Israel had believed, but rather to the second-stage Iranian missile program, the delivery system that brings Europe into range. In other words, Israel had alerted a European ally to a shipment that turned out to constitute no direct threat to Israel at all, but a very potent threat to Europe. Such specific intelligence contributions, together with Israel's credible information on the overall Iranian program, have gradually helped persuade key international players of the extent of the Iranian danger. Senior Israeli intelligence officials have frequently briefed prominent allied leaders in intricate detail. Nonetheless, the inadequate international response, immensely exacerbated by the shock of the NIE, has left Israel feeling more keenly than ever that if Iran is to be stopped, it may fall to us to do so. Because of the speed of Iran's progress toward it goal, and the complexities of a military strike over Iraq if this is deemed necessary, however, the narrow timetable for action can be readily discerned. If Iran is able to proceed with the program for another year, runs the thinking here, it will then be able to declare that it is a nuclear power. And if the Democrats win the US presidency, they may neither act against Iran nor enable Israel to do so via Iraq. At some point in the months after Israel marks its 60th anniversary of independence, therefore, the government may have to take a decision that many leaders here consider to be the most significant the modern state has ever had to make. Does this government have the wisdom to make the right choices - to judge correctly whether military intervention is premature and irresponsible or critical to Israel's very survival? We may all find out fairly soon. There is little doubt that Iran, if attacked by Israel, would hit back - with missile fire, with terrorism. Scenarios predict possible war with Syria and with Lebanon, and upsurges of violence on other fronts, too. Some speak of dozens of fatalities. Others are much bleaker. But the alternative, runs some of the thinking, would be far worse. Iran, if it goes nuclear, might fire on Israel. And it might not. It might be deterred. And it might not. It might think it could get away with supplying a nuclear device to a third party to use against Israel. And it might not. But, as a particularly well-informed Israeli put it to me last week, "One nuclear missile on Tel Aviv, and it's over." Then he added: "Did we all gather here after the Holocaust to be wiped out by one bomb?"