JERUSALEM — In a region forever stuck with its engines gunning on the off-ramp to war, he arrives with baskets of flowers and petitions for cease-fires.
He is the man who made a million selling hamburgers in Tel Aviv and spent it on a 50,000-watt floating radio station beaming anti-war songs at Beirut, who sailed to the Suez Canal in the middle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Abe's the name. Peace is his game.
For 25 years, Abe Nathan has been a gnat on the wound of the Arab-Israeli conflict, launching small guerrilla raids for peace in the midst of some of the worst horrors of war in the Middle East.
It was Nathan who, long before former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem, piloted his own small plane to Egypt to present petitions for peace to Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser.
It was Nathan who thrust 100,000 flowers at dumbstruck Egyptian port officials in 1975 and who huddled with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat the day before the PLO's unprecedented announcement renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel.
Earlier this month, on U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III's trip to Israel seeking to promote a Middle East peace conference, Nathan's "Voice of Peace" radio station broadcast a flurry of melodic accompaniments, including the song "Won't You Listen to What the Man Says?"
But peace in this part of the world has been a hard sell. Nasser was busy. The visit with Arafat landed Nathan 122 days in jail. Baker went home optimistic but largely empty-handed.
And now, 34 days into his most recent hunger strike, the 64-year-old peace activist has failed to win amendment of a law prohibiting contacts between Israeli citizens and the PLO, the law that earned him that jail time for seeing Arafat.
In the process, he unleashed temporary pandemonium in the Israeli Knesset and painfully exposed the rifts that lie embedded more deeply than ever in Israel, which is still recovering from the Gulf War.
"Every citizen and every Jew and every Arab and every soldier who falls and dies because of this decision will be on the heads of those who voted for it," a weak and disillusioned Nathan said earlier this week as he was carried from the Knesset gallery in a wheelchair, a few minutes after the parliament's vote. "This is all on their heads, because they're not willing to speak to the enemy."
At issue is the 1986 law that imposes criminal penalties for Israeli citizens who meet with officials from the PLO. Nathan has met several times with Arafat and other top PLO leaders and has repeatedly called on Israelis to launch a dialogue with the Palestinians as a way of permanently resolving the conflict.
"Thirty-five years ago, I flew my plane to Egypt. I came back to say they're willing to talk. No one would listen. They had the '67 war. After the war I went six times to Egypt; they refused to listen. They had the '73 war. Only when Sadat said, 'I'm willing to talk,' he stretched his hand, (former Israeli Premier Menachem) Begin grabbed his hand and we had peace," Nathan says.
"There is no alternative to direct negotiations. . . . Americans spoke with the Vietnamese, the French with the (Algerians), the blacks are speaking with the whites, the Cambodians are speaking with the Khmer Rouge. We are the only country on the planet that refuses to talk with the enemy."
Leftist parliament member Amnon Rubinstein's move to amend the law was up for a vote on Wednesday. His proposal would have allowed Israelis to meet with PLO officials as long as both sides proclaimed the meeting as an attempt to achieve peace and national security was not compromised.
The Knesset was in a surly mood when Nathan arrived, dressed in black slacks and a black Windbreaker, and sat quietly and alone in the gallery. Already, the parliamentary factions had clashed bitterly in a debate over closing businesses on the Sabbath. The members were still catching their breath when Rubinstein climbed to the podium.
"How can you send someone to jail who innocently wants peace?" Rubinstein demanded. "Can we consider ourselves among the free nations if we use criminal law to control the political freedom of individuals?"
But Likud majority whip Tzachi Hanegbi took the microphone and eyed Nathan. Hanegbi announced he was proposing to make the law even tougher, removing exemptions for Israelis who meet PLO officials during academic meetings or news conferences.
"I wasn't going to raise this proposal, but I'm raising it because that guy sitting in the VIP gallery has the \o7 chutzpah \f7 to come here. . ." declared Hanegbi. "Abe Nathan is a criminal without any respect for the law."
He looked up and waited for the storm.
It broke immediately. Several left-wing parliamentarians began screaming.
"You're the guy with the \o7 chutzpah\f7 !" said one. As Speaker Dov Shilansky banged his gavel, Hanegbi shouted at him to have the noisy objectors removed from the chamber. That prompted them to yell all the louder.