Harmony between Arab and Jew silences the peace pirates: A radio station that was a thorn in Israel's flesh has closed, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

AFTER a funereal rendering of We shall overcome, the Voice of Peace finally fell silent yesterday 'somewhere in the Mediterranean'.

For 20 years the world's most famous pirate radio broadcaster, Abie Nathan, scandalised Israeli airwaves by calling for Arab-Israeli dialogue and sweetening his peace messages with the sound of pop. For 20 years he was hounded, arrested and jailed for his contacts with the 'enemy PLO'.

Yesterday, however, a month after the new Israel-PLO accord, he announced that his ship's message had finally got across to the Israeli shore - and Yitzhak Rabin, himself, seems to have tuned in. On 13 September the Israeli Prime Minister shook hands with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The Voice of Peace, said Mr Nathan yesterday, had helped bring about 'dialogue between enemies'.

Mr Nathan had intended at first to sink the good ship Peace, now its work was done. But yesterday negotiations were under way to turn it into a 'Peace Museum'. At the last minute Shlomo Lahat, the mayor of Tel Aviv, and Yossi Sareed, the Minister of the Environment, visited Mr Nathan on board Peace to offer the ship a birth at Jaffa, and to propose it become a museum.

The maverick tones of Abie Nathan, tirelessly battling the authorities, will be missed from the airwaves, and Mr Nathan can rightly claim to have helped bring about the change in Israeli public opinion which allowed Israel to take its latest step. From taxi-drivers in Tel Aviv to barmen in Bat Yam, he won a following among hundreds of thousands of Israelis who would never admit to condoning his views, but nevertheless learnt to live with his message, as they tuned in over the years to listen to the station's lively tunes and combative talk shows.

When he started out Mr Nathan was seen as little but an eccentric radical. An Iraqi-born Jew, he was already known as a peace activist before he started Voice of Peace. Trained in the Indian air force he first gained notoriety by flying his private plane, the Shalom One, to Egypt in 1966. After another such flight in 1967 he was charged with violating an Israeli law banning entry to Arab countries but was released on bail.

Mr Nathan first decided to launch his own radio station after the 1967 Six-Day war. He believed at the time that the war could have been averted if there had been better communication - and therefore better understanding - between the sides. His intention was to use his radio station to bring Arabs and Israelis together to talk about reconciliation.

Israeli censorship laws, however, outlawed such broadcasts. Mr Nathan's project was hampered, in particular, by Israel's ban on contacts with the PLO.

Not to be deterred, he sold his restaurant and bought his ship. By the time of the next Arab-Israel conflict in 1973, the Yom Kippur war, the Voice of Peace was broadcasting from 'somewhere in the Mediterranean'.

Over the years the radio station became a magnet, drawing a range of politicans on to its chat shows. He used the station to raise money for disaster relief, as well as peace campaigning. But Mr Nathan continued to court controversy by campaigning for Israeli-PLO dialogue. He met Mr Arafat a total of 15 times, and was jailed several times - the last occasion was 15 months ago.

Mr Nathan now plans to devote more time to disaster fund-raising, and will no doubt oversee the running of his new project, the Museum of Peace. There was some doubt yesterday what exactly the museum will feature. 'I suppose it will display the history of peace in Israel - or rather the lack of it,' said Voice of Peace disc-jockey Kenny Page.