Singing "Give Peace a Chance," he stopped and let the audience sing the chorus alone. "Here tonight you sang it, you want it," the 66-year-old rocker said. He dedicated the song to his fellow Beatle, John Lennon, who was killed in New York in 1980.
Fireworks lit the sky as McCartney sang "Live and Let Die."
A crowd made up of Israelis of all ages, estimated at 40,000, cheered as McCartney performed outdoors in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park on a warm late summer night. Some wore T-shirts with the slogan, "I love Paul."
He greeted the crowd with a mixture of English and Hebrew, wishing them "shana tova," happy new year, ahead of next week's Jewish new year holiday. He added "Ramadan kareem" in Arabic, a greeting to Muslims, who are marking their holy month.
His repertoire included many Beatles hits, as well as songs from his post-Beatles group, Wings. The songs included "Yesterday," "Back in the USSR," "Hey Jude" and "Jet." He added two encores.
Photo: Yaron Brener
Nadav Erez, 31, from the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion, danced enthusiastically throughout the concert.
"He should have come here long ago, he should have come again and again, he should come again and again and again," Erez said.
'Night they have been waiting decades for'
The Beatles had been scheduled to perform in 1965. But in one of the country's most widely repeated tales, an Israeli official supposedly called off the concert for fear it would corrupt the nation's youth. Only in recent weeks, it turns out the story may not have been true.
So pervasive is this story that Israel's ambassador in London, Ron Prosor, sent a letter to McCartney and Ringo Starr, the two surviving Beatles, to express regret over the matter.
"Israel missed a chance to learn from the most influential musicians of the decade, and the Beatles missed an opportunity to reach out to one of the most passionate audiences in the world," he wrote. He invited them to play during this year's celebrations marking Israel's 60th anniversary.
When McCartney announced plans for Thursday's concert, he acknowledged the brouhaha, saying he was finally coming "43 years after being banned by the Israeli government." He promised to give fans "the night they have been waiting decades for."
Ahead of the concert, newspaper columnist Yossi Sarid, son of the Israeli official who allegedly banned the Beatles, went on a campaign to clear his father's name. Sarid claimed his father had nothing to do with the decision, and that it involved a more mundane feud between two Israeli concert promoters.
Sarid, reached ahead of the concert, said he hadn't heard from McCartney's people and had no plans to attend. "The tickets are too expensive," he said.
A small group of Palestinians had urged McCartney to call off the show, saying it was supporting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A radical Muslim preacher in Lebanon also called on McCartney to cancel the show.
During a visit to the biblical town of Bethlehem on Wednesday, McCartney brushed off the criticism.
"I get criticized everywhere I go, but I don't listen to them," McCartney said. "I'm bringing a message of peace, and I think that's what the region needs."