He may be the only foreign leader to humiliate a serving American president publicly and still receive standing ovations in Congress; he may continue to defy international calls for an end to Israel's settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories; and he may be leading the most right-wing coalition in Israel's political history. Nevertheless, Benjamin Netanyahu has been forced to tear up his own rule book to secure the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit in the face of a stubborn Palestinian resistance movement.
Netanyahu's flawed policies toward the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) go back to 1996 and his first spell as Prime Minister when Mossad attempted to assassinate its leader, Khalid Meshaal in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The botched operation almost wrecked the 1994 peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom and Netanyahu was forced to release the then-jailed spiritual leader of Hamas, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin.
Old habits die hard and with the Israelis this is especially true, it seems. The recklessness and arrogance of the current coalition government has seen Israel lose its oldest and strongest Muslim ally in the region, Turkey, after it refused to apologize for killing nine Turkish citizens. Now, threatened with the loss of another ally after the killing of six Egyptian border police, the Israeli government has offered a fulsome apology to Cairo and agreed to an unprecedented Egypt-brokered deal for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, who was captured while on active duty.
The dramatic overthrow of the Mubarak regime has created new geo-political realities, which Israeli can ill-afford to ignore. Failure to seize the opportunity offered by Egyptian mediation would have probably ruled out any more openings for Shalit's release once civilian rule returns to Egypt. Clearly, this factor and the attendant changes taking place across the region pushed Netanyahu to sign the deal. "I do not know if the near future would have allowed us to achieve a better deal," he said, "or a deal at all, since it is very likely that this window of opportunity created in these circumstances would have finally closed, and we wouldn't have freed Gilad at all."
While the prisoner-exchange deal is primarily a victory for the Palestinian people, it is also an achievement for Egyptian diplomacy. Under the Mubarak regime negotiations for an exchange stumbled from one deadlock to another; German efforts to mediate also ran into difficulty because of their reported partisan approach in favour of Israel.
By itself, the figure of 1,027 Palestinians to be released does not convey the full scale of Netanyahu's compromise. He has agreed to do what no other Israeli Prime Minister has ever contemplated, to include Palestinian prisoners from Jerusalem, the 1948 Palestinian territories (Israel) and even the occupied Golan Heights in a swap.
Internally, the deal will in the short term ease the pressure on Netanyahu and allow him to turn to other matters. Some claim that it clears the way for an attack on Iran. Whatever the case, many will heave a sigh of relief that the five-year saga is about to come to an end, even if Netanyahu has had to break all the taboos and order the release of hundreds of prisoners, including all the Palestinian women being held in Israeli jails.
Across the region, the deal will be perceived as a diplomatic disaster for Netanyahu while enhancing the popularity and credibility of his inveterate enemy, Hamas. By securing the release of prisoners from all over historic Palestine and from all factions, the Islamic Resistance Movement has positioned itself firmly as a principled and committed force for Palestinian national unity.
Hamas, in fact, has achieved what seemed almost impossible to many. The movement stuck resolutely to its demands and has succeeded where others have failed. One member of the Revolutionary Council of Hamas's bitter rivals Fatah, Nabil Amru, said that the achievement must be credited to Hamas and to the patience and expertise with which it conducted the negotiations.
For all its worth, though, this exchange deal should not be exaggerated; it is not the end of the road. Assuming that Israel actually releases all of the prisoners it promises to (and past experience shows that that is not guaranteed by any means), there will still be another 5,000+ Palestinian prisoners awaiting freedom. While nobody expects Israel to empty its jails of political and other Palestinian prisoners, this agreement offers a huge incentive to seek the release of many more.
Many citizens on the streets of cities across occupied Palestine will acknowledge that the resistance movement has delivered what years of negotiations in the "peace process" have failed to do. This aspect of the deal and its political impact cannot be overstated; without it hundreds of prisoners serving life sentences would never taste freedom again.
That's not all; the Shalit case underscores the level of popular support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel, despite its hi-tech armoury, under-cover capabilities and Palestinian collaborators, as well as years of brutal military incursions, could not find the captive soldier. Not even the siege and war of 2008/9 could deliver Shalit's release.
The fact is that the Israelis have no monopoly on human suffering. Gilad Shalit's parents and families suffered during his captivity, no doubt, but there are thousands of Palestinian mothers, fathers, wives and children whose loved ones languish in Israeli jails under very harsh conditions amounting in many cases to torture. These ordinary people supported the resistance and its stance on the prisoners' issue because they knew instinctively that this was their best chance of their families being reunited.
Three factors coincided to bring about this historic deal: the determination of the Islamic Resistance Movement, the weakness of the Israeli government and the geo-political changes in the region. The disclosure by Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that Hamas consulted his government before signing the deal says it all. It was Netanyahu's last chance and he had to take it, however bitter the taste. Now it is up to the parties involved to make sure that Israel doesn't renege on the second phase of the prisoners' release as it has done in the past. Turkey may have some influence on that as well.