Several key participants at The Jerusalem Post’s second Annual Conference in New York on Sunday pulled no punches in their criticism of the present government’s policies.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert claimed that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had “exaggerated” the Iranian threat with his red line, drawn during his famous UN speech in September. And the very idea of setting down a red line as a tactic for stopping the mullahs’ march toward nuclear capability was challenged by former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, who added that more time needed to be given for diplomacy and sanctions before military action is considered.

Former Mossad head Meir Dagan said that Netanyahu harmed efforts to prevent the nuclearization of Iran by focusing the world’s attention on a potential Israeli strike on Iran. This, he said, “transferred the Iranian issue from a worldwide issue to an Israeli issue.”

Meanwhile on the Palestinian front, both Olmert and Dagan launched offensives. Olmert received a mixture of boos and applause for claiming Israel’s strategic position was being undermined by its “dramatically inadequate” policy toward the Palestinians.

And in an interview on the sidelines of the conference with the Post and The New York Times, Dagan said that “for its own benefit, Israel should open a serious dialogue with the Palestinians,” adding, “It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to establish such a dialogue.

We are on the giving side, they are on the receiving side.”

Understandably, comments made by military intelligence and counterterrorism experts with impeccable credentials, who were, until recently, privy to Israel’s most well-guarded secrets, and by a former prime minister who is still considered to be well connected, have made headlines both in Israel and abroad.

Some, such as Home Front Defense and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, who attacked Olmert on Army Radio on Monday, have claimed that publicly criticizing a serving Israeli government – particularly when this criticism is voiced on foreign soil – is somehow unethical, unpatriotic and illegitimate.

Indeed, a bill dubbed the “Dagan Law” after the former Mossad head, who has made a series of controversial statements, including at last year’s Jerusalem Post Conference, was drafted in 2011 that would prevent former security officials from making public comments on matters related to their field of expertise without authorization from the Defense Ministry. Supporters of the bill, such as Likud MKs Miri Regev and Danny Danon claim the bill would protect Israel from the damage caused by comments made by Dagan and others.

But in actuality the stifling of a free exchange of ideas and criticism, particularly among those most qualified to express these ideas and criticisms, is the real danger to Israel’s security. After all, it was precisely the lack of independent thinking in the military establishment that created a collective “misconception” and led to Israel’s unpreparedness during the Yom Kippur War.

Indeed, what makes robustly democratic, open societies so much stronger than their autocratic counterparts is their ability to exercise self-criticism, learn from mistakes and choose leaders in light of conclusions reached through open debate. If Dagan and Yadlin, based on their deep familiarity with our military capabilities, and Olmert, based on his familiarity with high-level decision making processes, believe that a particular policy being pursued or ignored is detrimental to Israel, not only should they have the right to speak up, they have a moral obligation to do so.

If Olmert, Dagan and Yadlin have given away national secrets (they haven’t) they should be tried for espionage in accordance with the law.

However, enforcing an atmosphere in which people are compelled to speak in one voice and walk in lockstep undermines the strength of democracy and liberalism.

Without criticism and public oversight, leaders are liable to make terrible mistakes.

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