|TC TEL AVIV -- Abe Nathan is nothing if not a showman. The veteran Israeli peacenik cooked up a melodrama yesterday to end 24 years of broadcasts from a pirate radio ship off the coast of Israel.
Would he pull the plug and sink the ship?
Mr. Nathan, conjurer of the unexpected, would not say.
He had announced it would be the last broadcast of the "Voice of Peace," the station that had mixed a plaintive appeal for brotherly love with jazz and rock music, from anchor just outside Israel's territorial limits.
Israel allows no private broadcasting stations and never let Mr. Nathan run his station ashore. From two miles out, however, his music won a loyal audience of listeners, irrespective of the periodic pitch in English, Hebrew and Arabic to give peace a chance.
Peace had arrived when the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was signed Sept. 13, said Mr. Nathan yesterday -- or at least enough peace that he could quit the money-losing radio station and sink the old, sway-backed converted cargo ship that had been the platform for the station since 1969?
As he approached the 1 p.m. deadline he set for himself, Mr. Nathan sat alone (except for a TV crew and a technician) behind the microphone of his station, delivering a mournful eulogy for the old ship in a sad baritone pocked with deep sighs.
"She's an old ship. She's done her service. Let her sink," he said of the 570-ton freighter, built in 1914.
As he spoke, a rescue neared: Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat and Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid raced in a motorboat to his ship, then pleaded with him on the airwaves to save it.
"Make a peace museum of it," urged Mayor Lahat.
"Nobody wants you to sink this ship," said Mr. Sarid.
The "Voice of Peace" had been a symbol of Mr. Nathan, whose irrepressible theatrics in the name of peace earned him a grudging admiration, if not universal support, among Israelis.
The 66-year-old pilot, restaurateur, would-be politician and confirmed activist first splashed onto public opinion when he flew his private plane, the "Shalom One" to Egypt in 1966. Israeli-Arab tensions were high then and border intrusions were an invitation to be shot down.
He just wanted to express his wish for peace, he said.
He led peace marches, erected peace monuments, organized peace foundations and made peace appeals to world dignitaries.
All his efforts were accompanied by much publicity, but he also was willing to make a personal sacrifice for his cause.
He went to prison three times for openly violating Israel's law against meeting with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization or other Arab "enemies." The law was dropped in December, shortly after he was released from his last incarceration.
He went on hunger strikes. He flew off to the scene of major natural disasters around the world, often bringing relief supplies bought with his own money. And he kept the "Voice of Peace" operating even while advertisers shunned it.
"He has a large heart," said a friend, Igal Geyra, lounging on his sailboat at the Tel Aviv marina, with Mr. Nathan's radio ship in the distance. "When people start to analyze who was and who was not responsible for the peace, he may be mentioned."
"I take my hat off to him," said Mayor Lahat, lingering for the news media before taking his motorboat ride to Mr. Nathan's ship. "He is unique."
At 100 megahertz on the FM airwaves, Mr. Nathan waxed melancholy as he waited for the mayor. "My hands are full of blood," he said, reminiscing of his days as a pilot in India, where the Iranian-born Jew grew up. In a Lady Macbeth-like soliloquy, he intoned, "I have to clean it from my hands. I must. I must."
His mood seemed to brighten when the officials arrived, and made their public appeals. One almost could hear the idea playing in his head . . . a museum . . . displays of great moments in peace . . . maybe, a license on land for his radio station, some day.
"We're going to stay on a little longer to raise money for the peace museum," he said, tipping his decision. "We've got a number for you to call to make your pledges."
At 2 p.m., after the umpteenth rendition of "Give Peace a Chance," Mr. Nathan played "We Shall Overcome" and turned the Voice of Peace off the air. The ship sailed toward harbor.