For a determined leadership, a deal to free a kidnapped Israeli is like a candy bar waiting on the shelf. In contrast to peace and most other issues, the timing of such a deal depends entirely on Israel's leadership, and public enthusiasm is guaranteed. One word - yes - and the deal is done. It's no accident that the deal for the return of abducted businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum was orchestrated to take place on the day David Appel was indicted for bribery - a development that was supposed to have been followed by charges against then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Gilad Shalit deal can't be viewed in isolation. The timing stemmed from three factors. One is the summer's social protest. Regrettably, however, that wasn't a major motive; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far from viewing the protest as a threat - after all, his numbers in public opinion polls are still good.
A more significant reason is the damage the deal does to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and to the chances of a peace agreement and a withdrawal from the territories. The deal strengthens Hamas and weakens Abbas, thus reducing the diplomatic prospects. And for Netanyahu, that's a worthy end.
Yet even this isn't the most important point. In Netanyahu's view, the PA president has already been thwarted in the United States by AIPAC, evangelical Christians and Congress, which, together, strong-armed U.S. President Barack Obama. Thus, it seems the real story is an attack on Iran.
Anyone who has held an in-depth discussion with the decision-making duo - Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak - could conclude that the timing of the Shalit deal is the prologue to such an attack. The operational reason - that the response to the attack will also come from Gaza, so it's preferable that Shalit not be there - is marginal. The real issue is legitimacy.
Even an extremist leadership needs legitimacy to endanger tens of thousands of its citizens. A principal source of such legitimacy is if the adventure enjoys sweeping support from the heads of the security services, as the Shalit deal did.
But there's one problem: No such support exists; quite the contrary. Even though Barak waged a campaign of persuasion via personal conversations, dozens of generals - past and present leaders of the defense establishment at the level of chief of staff or head of command - vehemently oppose an attack right now. Only one junior officer, Netanyahu's military secretary, doesn't really object.
The reason is simple: According to even the most optimistic assessments, a successful attack will delay Iran's nuclear program by two years at most. But an attack will greatly strengthen the messianic wing of Tehran's leadership - headed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is currently on his way out - and increase Iran's determination to embark on an open race for a nuclear bomb.
Thus, an Israeli assault would merely shorten the time until an Iranian bomb was produced. Moreover, Iran's motivation to use such a bomb would increase, while Western support for the nuclear deterrent that protects Israel would be undermined.
The second possible source of legitimacy is the conviction, among both Israeli citizens and the West, that Israel's leadership has done everything it can to obtain an agreement that would stabilize the Middle East. An agreement would dramatically reduce the motivation for extremism in the region. An agreement, or even a sincere desire for one, would also lead the West to give Israel strategic support. Such support is essential to move to an open nuclear deterrent, obtain a NATO umbrella and curtail the salvos of thousands of missiles that would follow an Israeli assault - salvos that are liable to last for months, perhaps even years, according to individuals such as former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy.
However, the opposite is true: Israel is viewed as more extremist and more isolated than ever before.
Hence, all that remains is an attempt to create the kind of quasi-mystical legitimacy that characterizes undemocratic regimes. The Shalit deal is meant to demonstrate that Netanyahu is a wise, fatherly leader with an aura of greatness. When it's necessary, he will worry about a single soldier, and when it's necessary to endanger tens of thousands of people, he will do so responsibly. This accurately describes the mood of the twosome in the headlines.
Each and every opponent of an attack within the defense establishment must therefore make it clear to the duo that they can't behave like this. It is not possible to endanger an entire nation for years via an underhanded, opportunistic maneuver - not in the dead of night; not by hastily convincing a few elderly rabbis; not in defiance of the entire defense establishment; not in defiance of all the past and present heads of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service, Military Intelligence and the Atomic Energy Commission; not in defiance of the United States; not when Ahmadinejad and his gang of messianists are growing weaker; not when there are signs of American measures in the wake of Iran's attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington and the International Atomic Energy Agency's impending severe report; not when the clouds are about to burst. Just plain no.
There are things that even a duo, the one half of which is brave and talented, can't do on its own. They have no mandate. Not now. Not like this.