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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's explanations for the delay in a deal for the return of captive soldier Gilad Shalit are gradually being reduced to a single key argument: It is impossible to free heavyweight prisoners - people responsible for major terror attacks - because they will then endanger the welfare of all Israelis. In his speech last Thursday, Netanyahu explained that he is not willing to release such prisoners into the West Bank, because once there, they are liable to establish new terrorist networks that would threaten both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

To refute this argument, it is sufficient to listen to what GOC Central Command Avi Mizrahi told Haaretz about six weeks ago: "The IDF can deal with this. ... I'm not afraid of the return of these terrorists; it takes them a long time to reconnect to the territory."

Mizrahi, who is responsible for the West Bank, can be relied on to know what he is talking about, even if his view contradicts that of Netanyahu.

But one need not rely on the view of any particular officer, because it is clear that the decision is not military, but political. The Israel Defense Forces' ability to deal with 40 or 400 terrorists is not in question. Were it not for this ability, these prisoners would not currently be in jail.

The prime minister's argument essentially equates the threat that these dozens of terrorists would pose if released with the far greater threats posed, for example, by Hezbollah or Iran. Yet Netanyahu has never been heard to say that Israel is incapable of dealing with these threats.

There is no choice but to conclude that the prime minister is trying to hide behind security rationales in order to avoid a difficult political and diplomatic decision. No one disputes that the price Hamas is demanding for the kidnapped soldier is a heavy one, but both in principle and in practice, Israel has already agreed to pay it. The proof of this is those 1,000 prisoners whom Netanyahu himself described as the agreed-upon price.

The prime minister would be wise not to put the public and its support for the Shalit family to the test. His weak arguments merely deepen the public's distrust of his position.

He must make the difficult decision to secure Shalit's release immediately. Four years of negotiation are a heavy price in and of themselves - both for Shalit and his family, and for a frustrated public.