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Gilad Shalit prisoner swap: Why Netanyahu agreed to 1,000 Palestinians for one Israeli

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was opposed in principle to the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. But his willingness to make an unsavory deal in the end highlights his pragmatism.

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Ohad Kaner ran the tent for the past 14 months, each day updating the number of days Shalit had been in captivity. On Wednesday it was day 1,935.

“For everyone who wanted to come here and support the family and express himself, sit with us, experience the pain and shout the shout of Gilad – this was really the only way,” Mr. Kaner said. “It took a long time, but at the end of the day [Netanyahu] showed leadership and made a brave decision.”

When Gilad’s brother Yoel arrived at the tent with his girlfriend today, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger blessed the secular young couple and noted the timing, signed just after the Jewish new year.

Activist Hadar Winter, who manned the tent each weekend to pressure the government and offer sustenance to Gilad's family, says she is sure the campaign – in the tent, in protests, and in the press – did its part.

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“The prime minister, it wasn’t pleasant for him to pass here every day when people sat in the tent right on his house,” she says.

Ms. Winter guessed Shalit would have no concept of the scope of the campaign in his name, which spread across Israel and the world. She said activists have saved him letters, guest books, videos, and posters.

A tactical dividend for Netanyahu

Netanyahu's decision to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit was not only a nod to public sentiment, however. It also is likely to yield another tactical dividend: By boosting Hamas, it will shift attention away from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's diplomatic campaign for United Nations statehood recognition – a move Israel bitterly opposes.

That may be a consolation for a leader who likely might have criticized the same deal if he weren’t saddled with the pressures of facing daily protests and reminders of Shalit’s plight.

"Netanyahu was opposed to it in principle. He said, 'It goes against everything I believe in, but it's time to bring him home,' " says Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate the deal. "After five years, enough was enough.’’

Correspondent Daniella Cheslow contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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