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The scope of the dilemma facing Israel's decision-makers regarding the deal to free Gilad Shalit is demonstrated by the protracted deliberations of the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers yesterday and Sunday. The smaller the gaps become between the positions of Hamas and Israel, the more obvious the difficulty becomes. The ultimatum of the German mediator underscored to the cabinet the necessity of making a decision.

The apparent tie among the other six ministers means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will determine the abducted soldier's fate. It is he who will have to explain his decision to that part of the Israeli public that will object to it. If he approves the deal he will have to explain the release of prisoners responsible for major terror attacks in exchange for Shalit. If he rejects the mediator's offer, he will have to explain why to the Shalits and to those who support accepting Hamas' demands.

Infuriatingly, these agonizing deliberations are taking place three and a half years too late. The Hamas demands are not new, and the lengthy and frustrating negotiations have made it clear that there is a limit to the concessions each side is prepared to make. The mistakes made during the term of prime minister Ehud Olmert and the foot-dragging in Netanyahu's have added to the other considerations surrounding the decision: the superfluous ones of prestige, party politics and personal pressures. They have shifted the focus of the decision making process from its proper place - delivering on the state's duty to - to populist considerations.

The cabinet will not be able to wash its hands of responsibility with the spurious claim that it has "done everything" to obtain Shalit's release. True, it clamped a cruel blockade on Gaza as a means of applying pressure, but the heavy price of that is paid by the Gazans, not Hamas. The massive military operation in Gaza did nothing to advance his release, and in the end Israel had to return to negotiations.

Not a single new reason that justifies keeping the Shalits and the Israeli public in suspense - and jeopardizing Shalit's life - has been added to the sum total of security and political considerations. Israel's security does not depend on whether another 10 or 20 terrorists are freed. Israel's prestige is not measured only by its ability to combat terrorism, and its failure is not a function of the roars of triumph with which Hamas will welcome its freed prisoners. Gilad Shalit, who could have been free a long time ago, must come home now.