The story of the rogue Israeli pilot, failed politician and hamburger-joint owner Abie Nathan, who decided to "hop over" to Egypt in the interests of promoting peace.
Even before he embarked on the journey that would come to define his life, Abie Nathan could boast a remarkable life story: The former Israeli Air Force pilot had been born in Iran in 1927. He cheated his way into serving in the Indian military when he was only sixteen. He fought in Israel’s war of Independence and later worked as a commercial pilot for the national airline company, EL Al. By the late 1950s he had changed course completely: The aviator had become a restauranteur. His popular “California” diner had helped to introduce that most American of delicacies, the hamburger, to young, hip Tel Avivians.
Nathan soon became a fixture of the Tel Aviv nightlife scene thanks to his restaurant and its central location at the corner of Dizengoff and Frishman, but he never forgot his first love: flying. From time to time he would spontaneously jet off to some random location in the world in his private plane without making prior arrangements. Abie Nathan was that kind of guy.
In 1965, with the Israeli elections approaching, the customers at Abie’s restaurant would often be disturbed by raucous arguments over the political climate and the lack of any diplomatic progress between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. “If they refuse to come to us”, Abie asked a friend of his one day, “why should we not go to them?”
“Would you be ready to go yourself?” one of his customers asked provocatively. Nathan replied that he would, but his challenger was persistent: “So why don’t you run for a place in the Knesset in the elections?”
Abie was not deterred. Instead of taking a step back, he was now intrigued by the idea. Not only would he run for the Knesset, he told his listeners, but if he were elected he would fly “personally to Egypt to see (Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser, not as a citizen but as a member of the Knesset.”
Approaching the fifth decade of his life as a man of wealth and stature, Nathan decided to dedicate his entire being to a new initiative: peace between the two great enemy nations – Israel and Egypt.
This was an unconventional cause to take up, considering the venomous, hate-filled rhetoric that Nasser would direct time and again towards Israel and many of Nathan’s friends felt he was making a terrible mistake that could seriously damage his reputation by putting himself up for election. Nathan though, was more than a little stubborn.
Conventional politics were not his forte, however. In the November election, his party, “Nes” (Miracle), received only 2,500 votes, a fraction of the amount needed to get a seat in the Knesset. Despite this failure, Nathan still felt he needed some measure of broad public support to carry out his bold mission. He prepared a petition and declared that if he could get a hundred thousand signatures he would fly to Egypt on his own and demand a meeting with President Nasser. He hung up posters, handed out hundreds of flyers, and took out ads in the paper. A buzz was generated and it even managed to reach the halls of power in Cairo. The Egyptian regime, however, was not impressed. The authorities there let it be known through the government controlled press that Abie’s plane would be shot down the minute it crossed the border.
The plan was not popular in Israel at this stage either. Nathan was labelled a “fool” and a “weirdo.” More than a few people came to his diner to shout insults at him, but also to sneak a peek at his Stearman aircraft parked not far away, which Abie had recently painted white with the name “Peace 1” written in English, Hebrew and Arabic on the side.
Few believed that the Tel Aviv playboy would be true to his word. Only one photographer showed up on the chosen date of February 28th, 1966 at the tiny airfield in Herzliya. It was only after Nathan had taken off for Egypt that the ground crew realized the event was not just a staged photo opportunity.
The day after the flight, the Associated Press reported that “Peace 1” had crashed en route to its destination. This mistake was apparently caused by Abie’s radar-evading flight pattern. “I must admit that as a pilot, I’m usually quite cautious and don’t take unnecessary risks,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but the urge to avoid detection was what pushed me to fly the way I did.” At first he turned sharply towards the sea, “nearly grazing the rooftops” of Tel Aviv.
Air Force planes were scrambled to convince him to turn back, but as he had no radio on board, Nathan had no way of communicating to them that he was determined to push on towards his destination. Within a few hours he reached the Egyptian city of Port Said in the Sinai Peninsula. Noticing his rapidly decreasing fuel levels, he decided to land at the local airfield. Once on the ground, it took Nathan some time before he was able to convince the stunned air traffic controllers that the man facing them had indeed just taken off from Tel Aviv. And no, they had not heard about the Israeli pilot who had promised to meet with Nasser.
The governor of the city had heard of him though: He notified Nathan that the Israeli press had rushed to report his death, and that after consultation with the authorities in Cairo, it had been decided to refuel his plane and send him on his way back to Israel. “If anybody asks, we will deny you were ever here, and you will be able avoid legal troubles in Israel” he promised.
Facing the failure of his elaborate plans, Nathan was not giving up so soon. Now, all he wanted was to spend a night in the land of the enemy. He attempted all manner of tricks to buy some time. At first he said he was hungry. Once he had consumed the meal prepared by his hosts, he made his way slowly back to the airfield, making sure to stall for time whenever possible. Once there, he slowly and clearly explained to the ground crews that it was much too late in the day to fly black to Israel.
In the control tower, Nathan played a few rounds of cards with the bored air traffic controllers as they all waited for further orders from above. After he had won all their money, he welcomed back the city governor who had returned for a visit. The two then drove into the city to purchase some pajamas so that Abie could spend the night. The owner of a local store was called back from home, to reopen specially for Nathan. As the shop’s first ever Israeli customer, he was provided with a handful of souvenirs to show people back home. In the morning, Abie was on his way back to Tel Aviv.
The news of Abie Nathan’s return became the talk of the town in Israel, and thousands gathered to welcome him back. The crowd picked him up and carried him around the airfield, singing songs of praise and spraying their hero with champagne. A police car had also arrived on the scene, but after being detained for a short series of questions, Nathan was released on bail.
Beyond this excited reception, Nathan’s historic flight had little actual impact. Little more than a year later, the Six Day War broke out, and the enemy territory that Nathan had landed in, at great personal risk, came under Israeli control. It was only well after the Yom Kippur War that both Israel and Egypt decided the time had come to find a solution to the conflict between them.
One contribution can be chalked up to the brave pilot who would go on to attempt to meet Nasser two more times: By strength of personality and deed, Abie Nathan was able to define and, to some degree, even invent a new type of figure in the Middle East – that of a celebrity willing to drop everything and invest all of his energy and talents, in the cause of peace.