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OBITUARIES / Abie Nathan, 1927 - 2008

Israeli peace activist, pirate radio founder

August 29, 2008|From the Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Abie Nathan, the Israeli peace activist who made a dramatic solo flight to Egypt and later founded the groundbreaking "Voice of Peace" radio station, died Wednesday. He was 81.

Nathan died at Tel Aviv's Ichilov hospital, the hospital said in a prepared statement. The cause of death was not reported.

He burst onto the world of Middle East diplomacy in 1966 with his solo flight in a rattletrap plane 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.

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.

On hearing of Nathan's death Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement that said: "Abie Nathan loved life, loved mankind and loved peace. He painted Israeli society with a unique shade of humanism and compassion."

Abraham Jacob Nathan was born April 29, 1927, in Iran, educated in India and served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot during World War II before joining the Jewish immigrant influx into Israel shortly after its independence 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.

Convinced that people power could succeed where the diplomats had failed, he ran for parliament in 1965 on a promise to fly 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.

He continued his campaign for peace later that year with trips to Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union, where he met with world leaders.

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, 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.

In the 1970s, 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.

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.

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

Nathan was twice married and had one daughter, Sharona. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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