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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 October 2005, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
A meeting with the president
By Norma Percy
Series producer, Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace

From Camp David to the withdrawal from Gaza, a new three-part BBC TV series traces the last six years of the search for peace in the Middle East. The programmes are built around the insights of the leaders who strove to create a peace and leave their mark on history. President Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon all agreed to talk about what went on behind closed doors.

Series Producer, Norma Percy. Credit: Brook Lapping Productions/Dan Edge
Norma Percy during filming at Arafat's compound in Ramallah
We set out to make viewers feel what it was like to be there when really big political decisions were made.

This is a way of eavesdropping behind closed doors.

When the Israeli cabinet decide to besiege Arafat's West Bank headquarters; when the Palestinian Authority decide to call a ceasefire; when Hamas organise a suicide bomber, no one would ever be let in to film while it was happening.

By their nature such meetings are often so secret that their very existence is known only to those present.

Our task is to pinpoint the key meeting, then ask the people involved, one by one, to tell us what they said.

Evasive

The problem is you have to get certain people. There are no substitutes.

ISRAEL AND THE ARABS
Programme 1: CLINTON - Monday 10 October 2005, 2100 BST, BBC Two
Programme 2: ARAFAT - Monday 17 October 2005, 2100 BST, BBC Two
Programme 3: SHARON - Monday 24 October 2005, 2100 BST, BBC Two
President Clinton was obviously a big target.

When we began work in April 2004, Clinton was touring the world promoting his memoirs.

When our first letter reached him he was recovering from heart surgery and he said no.

Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon said yes in principle, but that he would give no interviews till his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was complete, which was not due to happen until after our deadline.

The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, though out of office, had just launched his bid to re-enter politics and was a very busy man.

A first research meeting on 30 June 2004 did not lead to a filmed interview till 1 November.

Even then, after 40 minutes, his time ran out and we had not reached our questions about his offer, made at the Camp David summit to share parts of Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

It took until 9 March 2005 and a special trip to the Middle East - a round trip flight of 4,640 miles for a one hour interview - to finish it.

Summons

Yasser Arafat should have been easier. He was confined to his compound in the West Bank, the Israeli Government hinting that if he left the Occupied Territories he would never be let back.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat died aged 75 in a French hospital in November 2004
To get the interview, we scrupulously followed the drill his office imposed on journalists.

Appointments were not given in advance.

The president usually received his visitors in the middle of the night. The Israelis close the check point at sundown.

So you book a hotel room and await the summons.

After several fruitless visits we were granted an audience at noon the following day - but only with his press secretary.

We presented ourselves at the entrance and, our best pressed linen wilting in the heat, picked our way amongst the rubble, ruined cars and barbed wire - remains of the siege two years before, left to dramatise for visitors what the Israeli tanks had wrought.

The press man sat impassive throughout our pitch.

Suddenly he asked to be excused for a minute, and when he re-appeared announced that President Arafat would like us to join him for lunch.

Awkward

Our first impression was of a large pile of papers at the end of a long table.

Interviewing the Palestinian militants of Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade presented somewhat different problems
A famous black and white kaffiah was just visible over the top.

He looked, as famous people do, like himself - but smaller.

We were seated immediately on his left. He kept on reading and signing. It was an awkward moment.

Should we speak?

"Speak, El Ras [meaning literally 'The Head'] can work and listen".

I began to explain the project. He did not look up.

My colleague and producer, Mark Anderson, who delights in unusual social situations, was enjoying my discomfort, but finally decided to help me out.

"Mr President, you have met many of the great men of the century. Who was the most memorable?"

It worked. Arafat looked up and raised his finger.

"General de Gaulle who honoured me with the award of the cross of Lorraine, Nikita Khrushchev who invited me to Moscow, Fidel Castro, my brother." A list of the great men of the century poured forth.

Cryptic

Ice broken, he spoke, albeit somewhat cryptically, about his first tête-à-tête with Barak, who as a commando had once master-minded an attempt to assassinate him.

Arafat's negotiators and Ministers - Mohammed Dahlan, Saeb Erekat, Mohammed Rashid, Salam Fayyad, Nabil Shaath - were almost as hard to catch.

But in November 2004 one of Arafat's men summoned us to Paris, where the Palestinian leader now lay dying.

With Mrs Suha Arafat keeping firm guard over his bedside, they kept their vigil in the Intercontinental hotel - finally with time on their hands to talk to our cameras.

Logistics

Interviewing the Palestinian militants of Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade presented somewhat different problems.

Producer Mark Anderson and director Dan Edge. Credit: Brook Lapping Productions
Director Dan Edge, filming in Jerusalem's Old City
They do not have secretaries and as the Israelis often use their mobile phones to target assassinations it is not easy to get their numbers.

Only Dan Edge, our young director, was equipped to take on the task.

Savvy and security minded from a previous year spent in Gaza, he finally managed to fix an early morning rendezvous in the notorious Jenin refugee camp.

He was directed to the martyrs' graveyard and told to follow a car conspicuously filled with laundry.

After driving round in circles he was finally brought face to face with a Camp Commander.

An extract from Dan's diary reads: "This is basically the first interview I have ever shot. And I am doing it with a nervous gunman scratching the trigger on his rifle with the ever-present threat of an Israeli assassination. Not ideal conditions".

We finally got the interview with Bill Clinton in June 2005, just days before our deadline.

We had to deliver the series to the BBC without Sharon. But on Tuesday 13 September, the phone call came.

"Prime Minister Sharon is ready to give the interview. Can you be at the United Nations in New York next Sunday?"

This was only days before transmission, but to include an account of why Sharon withdrew from Gaza from the man himself was worth the sleepless nights that followed.

The first programme in the series Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace will be broadcast on Monday 10 October 2005 at 2100 BST on BBC Two.

The series is also being shown in slightly shorter form on PBS in the United States on the same day.

Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace

TRACING THE LAST YEARS OF THE ARAB-ISRAELI PEACE PROCESS

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