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Ultimately, it was the Arab Spring that set Shalit free

    Last summer's economic protests in Israel, inspired by February's mass anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Tahrir Square, marked the Arab Spring's first direct impact on Israeli domestic politics. Last week's Egypt-brokered deal to bring home Gilad Shalit is the latest.

    In April, after five years of stalemate, Israel re-entered indirect negotiations with Hamas, just weeks after popular revolutions had ousted the Egyptian and Tunisian dictators, and unrest was starting to sweep Syria (where Hamas's leadership is based).

    Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frankly acknowledged that regional turmoil caused by the Arab Spring had been behind Israel's new sense of urgency in moving to secure Shalit's freedom.

    "With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don't know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal- or any deal at all for that matter," he said. "The window appeared following fears that collapsing MidEast regimes and the rise of extremist forces would make Gilad Shalit's return impossible."

    At the time, Mr Netenyahu's trepidation appeared to be justified.

    The Muslim Brotherhood looked poised to take over in Egypt

    Egypt's Hamas-aligned Muslim Brotherhood looked poised to fill the post-Mubarak vacuum, as anti-Israel sentiment on the streets of Cairo reached fever pitch. The same fundamentalist group would triumph if the Assad regime were overthrown in Syria. And unrest in Jordan was also emboldening the Muslim Brotherhood, that country's main opposition.

    However, in retrospect, Mr Netenyahu's fear was overblown.

    Protests in Jordan have petered out. And in Egypt, the military regime now looks set to hold on to power until at least 2013, the earliest possible date for presidential elections. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has ruled out running for the all-important presidency, settling instead for domination of the country's toothless parliament. Israel's peace treaties with both countries are secure.

    Still, aside from Shalit's homecoming, the deal could bring other dividends.

    Egypt insisted on Hamas relocating from Damascus to Cairo - a boom for Israel, as it will be under the control of the pro-Israel Egyptian military. With their country on the brink of bankruptcy, and promised billions of dollars in aid from Persian Gulf countries having failed to materialise, Cairo's generals are now more dependent on US largesse than ever.

    Nevertheless, since the terms of the Shalit deal are almost exactly what had been demanded from the outset by Hamas, it too can present it - and with justification - as a political and propaganda victory.

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