terrorist with explosive.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The newest buzzword in Middle East diplomacy is "strengthening the moderates." This is an expression that continuously rolls off the tongues of both world and Israeli leaders these days. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert uses this phrase repeatedly and heard it often on his visit two weeks ago to Rome and Berlin, and in his meetings last week with the visiting prime ministers from Britain and Norway.
The question is how to do it. How do you prop up the moderates? On Saturday night, Olmert gave his answer: by providing the moderates with money. And he is not alone in the belief that this is the way to help combat Islamic extremists.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spoke at his press conference with Olmert in Jerusalem last week about providing funds to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, was asked whether this was not tantamount to buying votes - paying the Arab street to vote for the good guy. The British prime minister gave a long-winded reply that could not be interpreted as an unequivocal no.
The West, he said, had the right to support financially those who shared its principles. This argument takes on added weight in light of the fact that with Iran successfully smuggling hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas - some estimate the sum to be $250 million - those being hurt by the world's financial siege of the PA are the moderates, who are not seeing this Iranian money.
Now this is about to change. The money that Israel freed up Saturday night is intended to prop up Abbas. It will go to him directly, and there is little real fear - because of the intra-Palestinian fighting - that he will then pass this money on to Hamas. This money is clearly meant to buy him support on the Palestinian street.
The problem with this approach, however, is that it underestimates the strength of religion and ideology in the society, and reduces everything to shekels and agarot. It is a throwback to the Shimon Peres way of thinking of the early 1990s, that if you just improved the Palestinian economic situation, peace would spring up along with the next branch of McDonalds.
While few dispute that destitution nurtures terrorism, alleviating the poverty will not necessarily dry up the reservoir of terrorists. Remember that those who brought down the World Trade Center were not destitute refugees in rags.
If this summer's war in Lebanon taught Israel anything, it is that our conflict is as much an ideological/religious one as it is territorial. Hizbullah had no legitimate territorial claim on Israel, yet it provoked a war.
The same holds true in Gaza. Israel has left Gaza completely, yet the rockets continue to fall. It's not only territorial, not even mostly territorial, but largely ideological and religious.
And for whatever reason - and they are myriad - an extreme ideology is on the ascent from Afghanistan to the Sudan. And it is an ideology that is more attractive to the masses - or so it now seems - than the stodgy, bland, often corrupt alternatives offered up by the Arab "moderates."
While Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was critical of Hizbullah this summer, his people loved what they achieved. While King Abdullah is concerned about what Hamas represents, what the organization stands for has an appeal for a significant number of Jordanians.
While the war in Lebanon won Hizbullah the admiration of the Arab masses, it divided those masses to a large degree from their "moderate" regimes - at least in Jordan and Egypt.
Which doesn't mean that Saturday night's decision to try and prop up the moderates in the PA was wrong. Just that it should be done with eyes wide-open, fully aware that in this part of the world - where religion and ideology have such a powerful pull - money isn't everything, and throwing money at the problem won't necessarily solve it.