Abie Nathan, the pilot, entrepreneur, peace activist and founder of the groundbreaking ''Voice of Peace'' radio station, died Wednesday at Tel Aviv's Ichilov hospital, the hospital said in a statement. He was 81.
President Shimon Peres eulogized Nathan as "a great warrior against war, against poverty and against discrimination." The president praised Nathan as "a man who dedicated his life for others, for the betterment of humanity. He feared no risk, and didn't hesitate to be at the head of every front. He was the greatest conqueror of hearts and a man of faith in a time when there was none."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was deeply sorry to hear of Nathan's passing. "Abie Nathan loved life, he loved mankind and he loved peace. He added a unique color of humanity and compassion to Israeli society, and we will lovingly cherish his memory," Olmert said
Peres with Nathan on latter's 80th birthday (Photo: Ofer Amram)
MK Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the United Arab List – Ta'al party, said Nathan was "a brave pioneer and a man of peace. I only regret that few others followed in his footsteps."
Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer: "Abie Nathan was a vanguard, a brave warrior for peace who didn't hesitate to lead the way. The Peace Camp bows its head to a man who has contributed a great deal to changing public opinion in Israel and the world."
A one-man crusader
Abraham Jacob Nathan was born April 29, 1927 in Iran, educated in India, and served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot, before immigrating to Israel during the 1948 War of Independence and joining the IDF's fledgling Air Force.
Nathan burst onto the world of Middle East diplomacy in 1966 with a dramatic solo flight to Egypt in a rattletrap single-engine 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.
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.
'Someone has to do something'
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.
''Someone has to do something,'' he would say, in the soft lilt that revealed his Indian background. ''We are getting nowhere with the politicians.''
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.
Abie Nathan (Photo: Danny Solomon)
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 such as Pope John Paul VI and Senator Robert Kennedy, and intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell.
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.
''Shalom, salaam and peace to all our listeners,'' Nathan declared in his maiden broadcast in 1973. ''The Peace Ship is a project of the people. We hope through this station we will help relieve the pain and heal the wounds of many years of suffering of the people of the Middle East.''
'Nissiti - I tried'
Apart from his peace efforts, 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, 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.
He saw the first wish come true when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. But it would be years before Israel would reverse a law making meetings with the PLO a crime.
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 January 1993, with a more moderate government in power, parliament repealed the law banning contact with the PLO, and Nathan immediately flew to Tunis seeking a fresh meeting with Arafat, this time legally.
Eight months later, Israel and the PLO signed an interim peace agreement, and Nathan celebrated with symbolism: he sank the Voice of Peace ship.
In 1996, Nathan suffered his first stroke in Washington. The trauma left his left side paralyzed and grounded him for life in a wheelchair. A second and more severe stroke hit in June 1998 in Tel Aviv. This
one robbed Nathan of his speech. In recent years, he had been confined to a retirement home and had rarely been seen in public.
In a 1996 interview Nathan said that during one of his prison hunger strikes, he was certain he was going to die. He bought a grave and a tombstone. When asked what he would want written on the stone, he replied ''Nissiti,'' the Hebrew word for ''I tried.''
Nathan was twice married and had one daughter, Sharona. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.