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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could not have wished for more gentlemanly opponents than the Shalit family.

The kidnapped soldier's parents have been tiptoeing around for nearly 1,000 days now, careful not to disturb the delicate negotiations or make false accusations. We can only imagine what Noam and Aviva Shalit would be doing if they were a little more aggressive. Think of Miryam Groff, the mother of soldier Yoske Groff, who was captured in Lebanon in 1982 and released in the Jibril exchange.

The Shalit family, in contrast, pitched their tent outside the prime minister's residence after considerable deliberations and after quite a delay. The Free Shalit campaign is pulling out all its ammunition - interviews, advertisements featuring Gilad, the tent. Even Tzvi Shalit, the most articulate family member, has been summoned to the front. Still, it's difficult to believe any of these will edge the final move.

The team has been aware for quite some time that they are most likely to get a deal to bring back Gilad during this critical window of opportunity, between the February general elections and the end of Ehud Olmert's term in a few weeks.

Their arsenal might have been effective if the government were to vote on a deal. In fact, if the deal as it stands were brought to a vote, it is likely to pass.

But Olmert, the only one with the full picture of the negotiations, would not even bring for a vote the list of Palestinian prisoners Hamas is demanding in exchange for Shalit. And without a vote at stake, the campaigners have no target for their pressure.

The process that plays out instead is this: The Shalits explain the urgency of their son's release, Olmert assures he is doing all he can, the press duly takes note and maybe even sheds a tear. That's about it.

Yesterday, Olmert repeated once again that the crossings into Gaza should not open until Shalit is free. He also made some accusations against Ehud Barak, whom he believes is wasting the achievements of Operation Cast Lead.

The blockade of the crossings, which the government called about three weeks ago, may well have become an effective means of pressuring Hamas over time. But if Olmert wants to release Shalit before his term ends, then he simply does not have this time.

Given that Hamas is insisting on pretty much the same list of prisoners it came up with more than two years ago, could it be that Olmert does not want to confirm the deal because he fears the simple question - what took so long?

Speaking at Kibbutz Yifat over the weekend, Olmert instead attacked the Shalit family by denouncing their demonstrations as "damaging." It's a surprising claim, considering the family's silence over the last two years. Olmert could have driven half an hour farther north to Mitzpe Hila, and criticized them privately, in person. He chose not to.

When Yitzhak Rabin was defense minister, and later prime minister, he would meet with the families of missing soldiers every two weeks.

"Why are you doing this?" his aides asked. "It's not like you have something new to say to them at every meeting."

"I may not have anything new to say to them," Rabin would insist, "But I'm sure they have a lot to say to me."