Time to Return to the Saudi Peace Plan

History is filled with crises that have become occasions for progress. This moment in the Middle East is just such an opportunity—precisely because events there look so bleak. In Gaza, hope for a better future (for Palestinians and Israelis) has been replaced by collective punishment. Was this avoidable? Absolutely.

In March 2002, the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, offered what is now known as the Arab Peace Initiative. This proposal envisaged Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of Palestinian refugees, in exchange for the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations in the context of comprehensive peace. Yet it was ignored by both the previous U.S. administration and by Israel. This caused a certain amount of skepticism, even cynicism, among Arabs, who saw the dream of peace disappear like a mirage.

Those of us who desperately hope for coexistence and beneficial relations between the Arab-Muslim world and the West were also hugely disappointed by the Western response to Israel's atrocities in Gaza. As we survey the wreckage and carnage that once was Gaza, a few basic facts can't be ignored. The extent of human suffering and material loss there has been colossal, and so must be the efforts to bring comfort and compassion to the victims. Fully 40 percent of the dead and 50 percent of the wounded were women and children.

Moreover, the fighting has extended a new lifeline to extremists. One consequence of the mayhem will be the likely radicalization of otherwise moderate and law-abiding Arabs and Muslims (although in limited numbers). We are one step closer to a clash of civilizations, and the tragedy may hinder efforts at intercultural and interfaith dialogue. Values such as human rights and democracy have been dealt a severe setback. Those who claim that the West applies double standards have been proved right.

The limits of what military might can accomplish have also been underscored. Even many Israelis couldn't comprehend or justify what happened. As the acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote recently, "What has taken place in Gaza places before us in Israel a mirror that reflects a face that would horrify us were we to gaze on it for one moment from outside." Israel needs to understand that living with its neighbors requires a modicum of sensitivity to human suffering. Siege under any name is war.

Still, people the world over have been heartened by President Barack Obama's determination to tackle this issue immediately. Both the United States and the Arab world are lucky enough to have leaders who combine vision and wisdom with humility. King Abdullah recently told an Arab summit, "Allow me to announce in all our names that we have overcome the period of disunity, and that we will face the future with total unity and without any discord." Only a few hours earlier, in his Inaugural Address, President Obama's words evoked the same generous spirit: "We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." The appointment of former senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy also bodes well, thanks to his integrity, impartiality and proven record in conflict resolution.

With luck, therefore, this bloody episode of Israeli-Palestinian conflict will galvanize the world to seek a permanent and lasting solution. The path forward should include the following elements:

First, Israel must immediately lift its siege of Gaza and declare a plan to fully compensate its victims there. This should be coupled with a clear apology and a commitment to never again resort to such disproportionate methods.

Second, Israel needs to declare unconditional acceptance of the Arab peace plan as the framework for meaningful negotiations.

Third, the world community must reconvene the Madrid conference as the proper forum for the mediation and arbitration of a comprehensive settlement. The conference should eventually convene to ratify elements of the solution and to authorize the resources needed for implementation. Prescriptions for peace are plentiful, but the will to pursue them is in short supply. For its part, the Arab League has already demonstrated its willingness to walk the path of peace.

Finally, it is vital that President Obama take on an active role in negotiations. The appointment of George Mitchell was a welcome move, but it won't be enough. Breakthroughs on Middle East peace come only when a U.S. president intervenes extensively.

Now that the guns have fallen silent, we need to recognize that this crisis is different from those that have gone before, and its consequences could be catastrophic not only for the parties directly involved but for the world at large. The benefits of peace, however, would be shared just as widely. So closure is not simply a choice; it is an imperative. The clock is ticking, and history will not wait much longer.