For twelve years, under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross was Middle East envoy and the chief peace negotiator. He is now Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His new book, "The Missing Peace" (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) is a detailed account of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, from the Madrid peace conference in 1991 to Camp David in 2000 and the final moments of the Clinton administration. He spoke with Beliefnet about the role of religion in the conflict, why peace negotiations have failed, and his hopes for peace in the future.

What role does religion play in the Middle East conflict?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a national conflict, not a religious conflict, though there is certainly a religious element lurking there. It's been very important for the Palestinians always to suggest that this is a national conflict, and it was never anything but a national conflict.

We've never seen spiritual leaders take a lead in this conflict or emphasize the importance of tolerance or reaching peace. The foremost clerics on the Palestinian side, in the Islamic world, and the chief rabbis in Israel have not taken it upon themselves to emphasize the importance of peace. It's not that they're out there deliberately creating a set of impediments, but they're certainly not at the forefront of trying to promote reconciliation.

It's not in anybody's interest that this conflict ever be transformed from being a national one to a religious one. But I also think that the use of religion is one of the potential problems. The Islamic militants say, "We have to have an Islamic state. And the Islamic state has no place for a Jewish state." Religion is certainly used by them to de-legitimize Israel's presence and to justify violence against it. As I said, I would like to see the spiritual side used more to create a justification for peace.

Would more religious involvement have an effect among Israelis, since they are for the most part very secular?
Well, it's not going to be in the forefront, but at a certain level, it certainly can't hurt. If the chief rabbis of Israel were to focus on the importance of peace and on the sanctity of life as it relates to this conflict, would it have some effect? I think so. Would it be the difference? I don't think so.

Is there a counterpart to the head rabbis of Israel on the Palestinian side that could trusted to do that? Most of the clerics we hear about are Hamas leaders.
Unfortunately, we have not seen any of the imams take anything but a negative role. There was a point when the Pope went to Israel, he wanted to put together an ecumenical council where the leading clerics or imams among the Palestinians and the chief rabbi of Israel were invited, but the leading imam gave this diatribe against it. And this was at a time when the environment was good, not bad. It would be good for religion to be supported, for it not to be used to justify continuing hostility. That's my main point--it would be great if religion could be creating a justification for peace. Unfortunately, we've seen it used too often as a rationale for continuing violence.

How did your own [Jewish] religion affect you as a negotiator?
I think it gave me a stronger commitment to wanting to see the conflict ended, to wanting to see an end to the violence and suffering. In the Jewish tradition there are few higher callings than to be a Rodeph Shalom, a "seeker of peace." So from my standpoint, I think [my Judaism] added to the commitment and sense of passion that I had for dealing with the issue. It isn't what determined that I would have an interest, but it certainly, I think, affected the character with which I pursued it.

Did it also affect the way the Arab world perceived your work?
With regard to the [Arab] leaders and negotiators, it was never an issue. But frequently I was the one who was portrayed as being too tough on them. My being Jewish gave them an easy handle to say, "Well, you know why he is being so tough on us." Certainly Arafat wanted to be in that position, where it looked like the US was being unfair and he was having to stand up to the US. It was really me he was standing up to.

Speaking of Arafat, it seems like you hold him primarily responsible for the lack of peace today. Is that true?
I do. Here is someone who basically turned down a historic opportunity [at Camp David in 2000 and in Washington in 2001] to not only end the occupation of his people but to provide them a state that would have been credible and viable. It would have demonstrated that he achieved his outcome with dignity. But because he had to give up the mythology of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, he wasn't willing to do that. He would have had to give up all his claims and any sense of grievance and formally declare that the conflict was over. Arafat was not willing to live without the conflict because the conflict itself defined him. He can live with limited understandings; we had five limited agreements, several of which I negotiated almost entirely. He could live with something that wasn't irrevocable, but he was not prepared to make an irrevocable commitment. That was the general reason.