A minister recalled on Tuesday a social gathering of coalition members at the Prime Minister's Residence on the eve of Rosh Hashana; Noam and Aviva Shalit stood, as always, in the darkness opposite the entrance to the house on Balfour street in Jerusalem.
Sad, broken, lonely, a living reminder of an unsolved episode. The negotiations for Gilad Shalit's release were already underway, and they were unaware that their odyssey was about to reach its happy ending.
The ministers approached the couple, uttering a few words of encouragement, and slipped away, embarrassed, into the party. They too, knew nothing. Only a precious few were in the know: the prime minister, the defense minister, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the mediator and the heads of intelligence. They all supported the deal. They all pledged to cope with the risks and implications.
Ultimately, the decision was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's. Thus his appearance on Tuesday on the runway at the Tel Nof air force base, together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF chief Benny Gantz, was understandable, natural and within the limits of good taste. Netanyahu didn't harass Shalit, and took no more than a minute of his time before the soldier met his family. He knew his place.
Netanyahu is a political figure. It's perfectly legitimate that he should hope for political gains. He knows that these are his best days. The bad days, however, may still lay ahead.
Yet, for one rare moment Netanyahu entered what was for him an entirely unknown niche in public consciousness: the father figure. As he hugged the gaunt, pale and frail soldier that descended from the helicopter, Netanyahu became everyone's dad.
There were prime ministers before him who could assume that role with ease: Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon. This role was never natural to Netanyahu. He was always seen as a cynical, cold technocrat.
Until Tuesday, Netanyahu was reserved. Since the deal was approved by the government eight days ago, he didn't appear in public, and gave no interviews or speeches. On Tuesday, after meeting Shalit at Tel Nof, he gave a short speech, warning the released prisoners that whoever "returns to terrorism - his blood is upon his head."
That's the setting where Netanyahu feels most at ease: Bibi, the anti-terror warrior. These words were also a personal vow to the Israeli public, those that mostly celebrated on Tuesday, but might soon be weeping again.
Netanyahu demonstrated leadership, despite the fact that some may accuse him of cowardice and capitulation to terror. In the chaotic Israeli reality, suffering from a leadership void, he took a stand and did the deed: he brought Gilad Shalit home. He redeemed Shalit, his family and all Israelis from an ongoing nightmare.
At the end of a summer that threatened to erode his popularity, Netanyahu will arrive at the opening day of the Knesset winter session riding high. And yes, one can assume that Gilad Shalit will be mentioned, in his first, festive speech.
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