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Israel's 'Voice of Peace' soldiers on

CAIRO - Among the journalists sprawling on the grass yesterday outside al-Quba presidential palace, one elderly figure lay apart. Abie Nathan was preparing a few words of thanks for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt who was about to emerge with Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, to make a statement on their summit, writes Sarah Helm.

Mr Nathan, director of Israel's Voice of Peace pirate radio station, former RAF pilot, restaurateur and free-speech campaigner, wanted to thank Mr Mubarak for a telegram he had sent a few weeks earlier. 'He cabled me to stop my fast in protest at the Israeli ban on PLO contacts,' said Mr Nathan. He has been jailed three times by Israel for travelling to the Palestine Liberation Organisation's headquarters in Tunis. He was released from a six- month sentence two months ago.

The indefatigable Mr Nathan, an Iraqi-born Jew, is planning to travel to Tunis again. But this time he hopes his trip will be in celebration of the lifting of the ban, which Mr Rabin has hinted may be ended to help the peace talks. 'When they lift the law I will be straight on the plane to Tunis. I will make a legal broadcast about it,' he said cheerfully.

Mr Nathan will be able to claim some credit if Israel decides to talk to the PLO and relax censorship laws. 'I think my radio station has done more than anything else to bring about a change in attitude,' he said. 'We must understand that we should talk to the enemy as well as to our own friends. Communication is the most important thing in achieving understanding and peace . . . the media have it in their hands to change the climate.'

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Mr Nathan sold his restaurant ('I was the first person to introduce California hamburgers to Israel') and bought a ship to start Israel's first pirate radio station, which now broadcasts 24 hours a day. 'It is somewhere in the Mediterranean international waters. Every politician in Israel wants to be heard on it nowadays.'

He believed the war could have been averted if communication between the enemies had allowed better understanding. 'I wanted to tell the Jews what the Arabs were really saying and vice versa. I thought it would pacify people.

'Every government wants to control the media. In Israel there is censorship of the press . . . I have been to prison so many times for breaking the law. The last time it nearly broke me. I was six months in a cell of 20 square metres with six other people. But I am still here,' he said.

Mr Nathan's vote of thanks was drowned out by the media. But his optimism was not dampened. He was looking forward to interviewing Yasser Arafat. 'I might speak to him live on Voice of Peace.'