We Shouldn't Make Arafat the Issue
By Chuck Hagel

Friday, July 19, 2002; Page A27

The most powerful force for the future of the Middle East is the next generation of Arabs and Muslims. America cannot afford to stand by and allow these young people to grow up hating us. Nor can Israel.

We are now faced with a unique moment to reach out to this generation and build a future with them. That is perhaps the surest thing America can do to help provide a secure future for Israel and hope for the Palestinian people. To do this, the United States must avoid policies that isolate us in the world community. We face both opportunity and risk, but there is no other option.

Young Palestinians need to see their future in a peaceful, fully functioning state with economic opportunities and democratic institutions. If they do not, and instead see violence and destruction as the only way forward, the long-term consequences will be great. We could lose the next generation of Arab and Muslim youth and the future of the Middle East to radical politics and anti-Americanism.

Such a development would destabilize our allies, including Israel, and threaten relationships vital to America's global interests.

This is all the more reason why we cannot hold the Middle East peace process hostage by making Yasser Arafat the issue. The United States cannot excuse Arafat for his failings as a leader, his complicity in terrorism, and his inability to make the tough choices for peace. The Palestinian people and our friends in the Arab world have paid the price for Arafat's corruption, intrigues and limitations. They know their future does not lie with Arafat.

But if we are serious about reform in the Palestinian Authority, then we must allow the Palestinians and the Arabs to deal with Arafat. Credible alternative Palestinian leadership will not step forward in response to a perceived American-Israeli demand for Arafat's removal. Change must come from within.

America must understand that the Arab world sees this as a Palestinian identity issue -- not an Arafat issue. When we allow Arafat to become the issue in the Arab world, we take away from the Palestinian people and Arab leadership their options in dealing with Arafat their way. This undercuts reform and further polarizes and radicalizes Palestinian politics. We give the extremists an issue that we need not give them.

The United States must lead a diplomatic process to break the endless cycle of violence and get to the end game -- an independent Palestinian state and security for Israel. We cannot wait until Palestine is a full-blown Jeffersonian democracy before getting on with a peace process.

Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace. This does not mean giving up or limiting its right to self-defense against terrorism. But Palestinian reformers cannot promote a democratic agenda for change while both the Israeli military occupation and settlement activity continue.

The international and regional constellation is with us. The program of the "Quartet" (United States, European Union, Russia and the U.N.) and the Arab League peace plan provide the context for a new consensus on Arab-Israeli peace. Our objectives need to be clear and firm, with the diplomatic flexibility to accomplish them.

America's efforts toward peace and reform in the Middle East must be accompanied by policies and programs promoting greater political and economic liberalization in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The proliferation of radical politics stems from the absence of democratic institutions.

American leadership over the coming weeks and months will help determine the direction of politics in the Middle East for the next generation. We have an opportunity to lead the region into a new era of peace and democratic transition. The task is difficult and complicated, and will remain so. If we falter, or opt out for whatever reason, the security of the United States and our allies will be jeopardized for a generation. This is not the kind of world I want my 9-year-old and 11-year-old to inherit.

The writer is a Republican senator from Nebraska.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company