One dilemma down, ten to go

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 19, 2011

Only two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be at a political low.

His cabinet had refused to support the much vaunted Trachtenberg Report, which he had hoped would reverse the tide of the social protest that dominated the news agenda throughout the summer.

The normally stable coalition had risen against him, including some of his most trusted ministers, and the Prime Minister's office was in disarray.

Just a week earlier, he had returned triumphant from the United Nations General Assembly and now there were dark mutterings about early general elections. What a difference a week can make.

With some deft political manoeuvring, Mr Netanyahu managed to make a deal with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party, securing their votes and passing Trachtenberg on his second try last Sunday. In the breaks during the cabinet meeting, he was getting updates on the secure phone from his military secretary, Major General Yochanan Locker, who had joined the negotiations in Cairo on their final lap.

No one is going to remind Bibi of Shalits' past criticism of him

This time he knew that it was the real deal, and he had the support of the security chiefs. He summoned the inner cabinet in the wee small hours and made it clear that it was now or never. He was taking no chances. He gave the team in Cairo the go-ahead to sign the deal early on Tuesday morning and only after that called a special, full cabinet meeting.

He presented the ministers with a fait accompli, notifying Gilad Shalit's parents in advance and allowing the media to run with the story just as the cabinet was gathering. The scenes of jubilation on the streets of Jerusalem and the dancing outside the Shalit's protest tent left the wavering ministers with very little choice.

The deal was authorised 26-3, 16 hours after it had already been signed.

Israel is currently in Shalit euphoria. No one right now is going to remind the Prime Minister of the harsh words the Shalit family had for him in the past. A few pundits dredged up quotes from a 16-year-old book in which Mr Netanyahu wrote that "prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief", but the opposition is savvy enough to know when there is no capital to be had out of attacking him right now.

Two out of the three ministers who voted against the deal - Mr Lieberman and Moshe Ya'alon - have also remained largely silent. But while he is basking in a rare moment of public and political unity, Mr Netanyahu will certainly have noted that both Mr Lieberman and Mr Ya'alon harbour prime-ministerial ambitions.

While the majority of the Israeli public supports exchanging Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the deal is far less popular among hard-core right-wingers. Mr Lieberman and Mr Ya'alon were delivering a clear signal to the ideological heartland: we're not like Bibi, you can trust us not to cave in to populist pressure.

Mr Netanyahu will enjoy a lift in his popularity ratings, although he will be forced to share it with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who supported a deal over Shalit well before the PM did.

The Netanyahu spin-doctors have been hailing his "leadership" since the moment the deal was announced, but what happens next week, when the Shalit carnival dies down and the media's short attention span is dominated once again by the tough choices that have to be made in the diplomatic and economic arenas?

Last updated: 11:49am, October 19 2011