Benjamin Netanyahu reached his decision. After 30 months and 10 days as prime minister, Netanyahu faced his ministers - and before that his conscience, beliefs and ideology - and reached the most difficult decision of his second term as prime minister. The Shalit agreement is the most important deal of his life, and as things stand now - the most important decision of his present government. Netanyahu didn't start a war. Nor did he sign a peace treaty. And meanwhile he hasn't found a way to calm and pacify the social protest movement.
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But he will forever be remembered as the man who brought back Gilad Shalit after more than five years of cruel imprisonment.
It has often been said that Netanyahu is a man of words and speeches, but not actions. This time he demonstrated true leadership. He decided on a course of action, for better or for worse, and, yes, the first part is better, the second might be worse. But in any case, as Israelis like to say, Netanyahu "acted like a man."
In last night's cabinet session, Netanyahu seemed exhausted. His makeup couldn't hide the bags under his eyes, the result of many sleepless nights, long nights of secret meetings and confidential consultations that probably did no good to his health. The prime minister's job is full of ceremonies, honors and a pleasant jet set lifestyle. The decision he had to reach in the past few days is not one of the fun parts of his occupation. It's a stomach-churning decision that involves flexibility - or rather, complete capitulation, a definite U-turn and disavowal of his former declarations, speeches and pledges.
In both his terms, Netanyahu has been forced to agree to such deals. In the first, in 1997, he had no choice but to free Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in order to bring back home the two Mossad agents involved in the botched assassination attempt against Khaled Mashal in Jordan. This time, he found himself forced to release 1,000 terrorists, including some of the most deadly and dangerous, in order to free one soldier. Netanyahu proved, and not for the first time, that he is more pragmatic than ideological.
Assuming the deal will actually come through, in the next few days the people of Israel will be overjoyed and share the happiness of the Shalit family. But in two, three or four months, the mood might change drastically. If the dark prophecies of gloom materialize and the cities of Israel will be subjected to horrendous acts of terror, even those who support the deal today will turn against Netanyahu tomorrow.
The prime minister was on the receiving end of some scathing criticism lately, because of his lack of involvement in the residents' crisis. Yesterday it turned out he had a reason: he was busy finalizing the Shalit deal. Maybe now he can find time to handle the crisis in the health system. Here, too, he must deal with life-and-death issues, not with arch-terrorists and murderers but young doctors and a few million shekels. In comparison to the Shalit deal, it should seem easy.
It's still too early to assess how the deal might affect Netanyahu's political fortunes, and the stability of his government. One can assume that in the short term he will gain popularity. But what will happen afterward? One can't tell, but at least Gilad Shalit will be back with us, part of us, part of the Israeli collective experience, which never has one dull moment.