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Noam Shalit and his wife Aviva are 992 days too late. These are noble people, but naive. They believed that if they left Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in peace, if they didn't bother him, if they didn't demonstrate in front of his house, their son Gilad would come home quickly. Olmert, after all, promised that he would invest every effort and would not forget the issue for a single day - and they believed him.

Therefore they were late in setting up the tent across from the Prime Minister's Residence. Had they set it up immediately after the abduction, presumably Gilad would already be at home. For the cruel truth is that we are living in a cynical and aggressive world, awash with political interests and petty accounts. This is a world in which if you aren't shouting to high heaven, you can't get anything done. A politician always has other considerations and extraneous accounts and is also always squinting at public opinion.

Immediately after Shalit was abducted, Olmert, the great hero, said he would not give in to Hamas' demands. He ordered the abduction of several parliament members from the West Bank, but this made no impact on Hamas. Some of them are still sitting in prison here to this day. Then the prime minister threatened that the Israel Defense Forces would go into the Gaza Strip. And indeed a few elite IDF units did go into Gaza and tried to liquidate those who had initiated the abduction. It is lucky Shalit survived these operations.

The operations halted after Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser were abducted on the northern border - because then Olmert set out to "bring back by force" the two abductees in Lebanon as well. The outcome is well known.

Time passed, and the Shalit family remained quiet. No one interfered with Olmert in closing a deal, but the prime minister did not want to pay the inevitable price. After exhausting and tough negotiations (it was appropriate to conduct tough negotiations), Ofer Dekel arrived at a rational formula: Shalit's release in return for 450 prisoners accused of serious crimes and several hundred more "ordinary" inmates. But Olmert has said that he won't agree to release so many arch-murderers "with blood on their hands."

This is one of the most hollow and annoying slogans. Who exactly doesn't have blood on his hands in the long war that has been raging in the Middle East? What is the difference between the commander who sends out the attacker and the attacker himself? And a political leader who has decided on a war or a terror attack - are his hands clean of blood? After all, we exchanged hugs with Yasser Arafat, and we signed with Anwar Sadat. Both sides have blood on their hands. That's how it is in war, and the rest is hypocrisy.

Then there was the operation in the Gaza Strip. Israel bombarded Gaza and killed 1,300 people, but even this did not persuade Hamas to return Shalit. Nor did the IDF succeed in finding him. It is lucky that he remained alive in the midst of the bombardments. It is very lucky that his captors have let him remain alive. In the meantime.

The 992 days that have gone by since the abduction prove that everything has already been tried, that all of the negotiating ploys have already been used. Now the time has come to decide: to pay the price or to let Shalit die in captivity.

It is true that it is wrong to pay "any price," but this is not a matter of just any price. This is a matter of a logical exchange of prisoners, which always happens after a war. This is not a matter of an outrageous demand that is deleterious to the fact of our existence. All Hamas is asking for is an exchange of prisoners, and, after all, we have 12,000 of them! And they have only one. Nor will this change the huge differential in military strength between them and us. There is no strategic damage here to Israel's security.

However, if we don't carry out the exchange immediately, we will be haunted by Gilad's fate, as we have been by the bitter fate of Ron Arad. One day he will disappear, and we will never know what happened to him.

But the rallies, the demonstrations and the campaigns will go on. The doubts will gnaw at and weaken society from within. Soldiers will think twice about enlisting in a combat force, because this will be the second time that the state abandoned its soldiers. There is, after all, an unwritten contract between the state and the soldier; he commits himself to risking his life for it, and it will do everything to rescue him, wounded or captive.

There is indeed a certain danger in releasing murderers, but this is the danger we have been living with every day for the past 60 years. We move from one war to the next, from one terror attack to another, and we pay alarmingly high prices. The price of releasing 450 prisoners "with blood on their hands" is part of that price.

That Israel is willing to pay this price is proven by the fact that the flow of visitors to Noam and Aviva Shalit's tent grows every day. The negotiations with Hamas are also gaining momentum. But next Wednesday Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu will present his new government, and the entire process is liable to grind to a halt.

Olmert has only a few days to correct at least one of the problems he created.