By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Headlines blared, the White House denied and shock waves rolled when, on camera, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha’ath quoted President George W. Bush saying “I’m driven with a mission from God. … I feel God’s words coming to me,Go get the Palestinians their state and the Israelis their security.”‘
That’s just one of the interviews in the BBC documentary series “Israel & the Arabs: Elusive Peace,” in which scores of high-ranking figures describe the secret meetings and conversations behind the conflict and peace efforts.
The three-part, 60-minute documentary series, produced by Norma Percy and Mark Anderson, with producer/director Dan Edge and executive producer Brian Lapping, features an astonishing roster of interviews with world leaders ranging from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas.
“We always do research interviews except for the top-top interview like Clinton, so we’ve met them and asked the questions,” said Ms. Percy. “They know what they’re going to be asked, and they have more control than in almost any other program. We can’t make fools of them. If we make them look like liars, the program loses credibility.”
Ms. Percy pointed to her favorite example: when U.S. Secretary of State Albright ran after a departing Yasser Arafat, clattering over the cobble-stoned driveway in her high heels and calling for him to come back. “I always tell the story of the Palestinians first – their being sexist and talking about making fun of this woman,” she said. “But she [Albright] tells the story the same way. She doesn’t mind telling a story about herself. Imagine if she could have gotten a cease-fire? She was almost there, so it’s a really important moment, where things could have gone right, and yet it’s so humorous and human.”
“We want to let the viewer be a fly on the wall when these big decisions are made,” said Ms. Percy. “When the meetings are not filmed, we have to work a bit harder, and they’re not usually filmed.”
The genesis for this series came from another series on Northern Ireland. Ms. Percy and her crew were filming President Bill Clinton in his study, six weeks after he stepped down from office. “I saw a photo of him, [then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak and [President] Arafat on the wall, and asked him about the Camp David agreement,” said Ms. Percy. “You could tell it was the one thing that kept him up at night, because he came that close to solving it. I thought, great story, we’ve got to tell it.”
Going after top figures and secret meetings can take longer than expected. After making a list of the top interviews (including those with Mr. Arafat, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Barak, Mr. Powell and Mr. Sharon), Ms. Percy reported they hadn’t interviewed any of them by BBC’s May 2005 delivery date. “I begged and they gave me more time,” she said. The last interview, of Prime Minister Sharon, took place on Sept. 18, a few months before his Jan. stroke, and is the only interview in which he looks back on his time as prime minister.
This is the third DuPont win for Brook Lapping Productions, which previously won a silver baton in 1994 for a series on Watergate on Discovery Channel, and a golden baton in 1995 for “The Death of Yugoslavia.” Next up, said Ms. Percy, is a series on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the West from 1979 to the present.