Abie Nathan, 81; Israeli Sought Peace in Mideast

Nathan had earned a reputation as a maverick peace activist.
Nathan had earned a reputation as a maverick peace activist. (Gpo - Getty Images)
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By Aron Heller
Associated Press
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Abie Nathan, 81, an Israeli peace activist who made a dramatic solo flight to Egypt in a rattletrap single-engine plane and later founded the groundbreaking Voice of Peace radio station, died Aug. 27 at Tel Aviv's Ichilov hospital after several strokes.

Mr. Nathan burst onto the world of Middle East diplomacy in 1966 with his solo flight more than a decade before Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty.

Although he failed in his initial bid to talk peace with the Egyptians, his daredevil escapade won the affection of many Israelis and launched a long and often eccentric one-man crusade to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Over time, he earned a reputation as a maverick peace activist who often took diplomacy into his own hands. He was called a crackpot and a prophet. But many admired the daring of the former Israeli air force fighter pilot as he pounded on Egypt's doors, sailed his pirate radio ship into hostile Middle East waters or risked his life on hunger strikes for peace.

"Abie Nathan . . . painted Israeli society with a unique shade of humanism and compassion," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement.

Abraham Jacob Nathan was born April 29, 1927, in Iran, was educated in India and served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot before joining the Jewish immigrant influx into newborn Israel in 1948.

He flew for Israel's national airline and ran an art gallery and restaurant that became the center of Tel Aviv's bohemian life. His American-style diner even helped pioneer the hamburger in Israel.

Convinced that people power could succeed where the diplomats had failed, he ran for parliament in 1965 on a promise to fly his private plane to Cairo and talk peace with the then-Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The voters rejected him, but he flew his private plane Shalom One to Port Said anyway. Egyptian authorities treated him courteously and sent him home. The Israeli government disapproved of his unauthorized border crossing but took no action.

In 1967, he flew to Egypt again and was turned away without seeing Nasser. The Israelis jailed him for 40 days.

After two more fruitless flights on commercial airlines, Mr. Nathan changed his tactics, buying a 188-foot, 570-ton freighter that was partially funded by John Lennon. He anchored it off the coast of Tel Aviv and turned it into a pirate radio station, the Voice of Peace, with a mix of pop songs and peace messages.

Over the next 20 years, the Voice of Peace became especially popular among youth. It was the only radio station in the Middle East that broadcast music from the world's Top 40 charts and used English as its primary language yet offered both Israeli and Arabic news.

Apart from his peace efforts, Mr. Nathan flew or shipped emergency supplies to victims of war, earthquakes and famine around the world, including to Biafra, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Lebanon and the former Zaire.

In the 1970s, Mr. Nathan went on repeated hunger strikes to try to force the Israeli government to make concessions for peace with Egypt and talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Nathan broke the law several times by meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, whom he later referred to as his "brother." In 1989, he was jailed for 122 days, with a one-year suspended sentence if he repeated the offense. He did, and was charged again.

It was a measure of the public affection he commanded that during a prison furlough, he was honored with a banquet attended by the cream of the Israeli establishment.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed an interim peace agreement, and Mr. Nathan celebrated with symbolism: He sank the Voice of Peace ship.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company