David Landau Strove for Peace, but Without Romanticism

‘There is no greater crime than the occupation,’ the former Haaretz editor-in-chief used to say. First and foremost he meant the crime against the Jewish people, Zionism and Israel’s diplomatic interests.

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David Landau with Shimon Peres
David Landau with Shimon PeresCredit: Yaron Kaminsky

To this day, I don’t understand where that arrogant idea came from to offer that Haaretz job to David Landau. He had been an admired diplomatic commentator, managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and a senior columnist at Maariv. But night editor? Okay, the head of the news desk.

With awe and reverence, I phoned Landau, my teacher and mentor, the model for emulation among diplomatic reporters. I mumbled something about the hidden challenge of the reorganized night desk and waited in fear for his familiar chortle. I was ready for “you’ve got to be kidding” — I had already prepared my apology.

“Are you serious?” Landau laughed into the phone — to my great surprise with unconcealed mirth.“ I’d be willing to work at Haaretz cleaning floors.” I was sure he was kidding, but a few days later, pretty late in the evening, I received a call. It was David.

“So when are you going to file your article?” Landau the new night editor asked.

He never missed a chance to talk about another telephone conversation I had had with him, a conversation that changed his life but didn’t offer me any breaks. He was inquisitive and demanding on lead stories and would argue over opinion pieces and editorials.

A little more than a decade ago, when David was already Haaretz’s editor-in-chief, I told him I had an appointment the next day to interview Yasser Arafat at his Mukata headquarters in Ramallah.

“Isn’t it dangerous to go to Ramallah?” Landau asked. I offered for him to join me.

“Are you sure he’ll agree?” Landau asked. I reminded him that he was editor-in-chief of Israel’s most important newspaper, and I promised that the president would be happy to receive him.

Arafat was indeed happy. He saw to it that a vegetarian lunch was ordered for his kosher-keeping guest and arranged for disposable plates and silverware. At the end of the interview, a long conversation ensued between the kaffiyeh-wearing Palestinian leader and Landau, a follower of Gur Hasidism wearing his black skullcap.

The two discussed the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites and the journey of the Jews to Egypt. They talked about Judaism and Islam, the prophets of Israel and the prophet Mohammed. It was one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had the privilege of witnessing in more than 40 years in journalism.

I thought Arafat’s conciliatory words had convinced skeptical David that he was a partner for peace. (During the interview, Arafat surprisingly said he understood that Israel was the Jewish state.) But my friend, my boss, didn’t believe Arafat. Landau was a man of peace with all his being, but he refused to compromise for it in the face of reality. He refused to cut corners.

The meeting at the Mukata strengthened the belief of the most left-wing ultra-Orthodox Jew I had met that ending the occupation required a unilateral withdrawal from the territories without negotiations or an agreement. His support for Ariel Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was so firm that he supported the shelving of a criminal investigation into the prime minister.

Landau set off a storm when he encouraged the Americans to “rape” Israel as a way to get it to withdraw from the territories. “There is no greater crime than the occupation,” he used to say. First and foremost he meant the crime against the Jewish people, Zionism and Israel’s diplomatic interests.

David never took a romantic approach to peace; he would chide me every time I accepted an invitation to meet with Arabs overseas. “That’s why you support the peace process,” he once told me.

To this day I’m not sure what the sly smile above his beard meant. I think it was the same smile I noticed when he came to Haaretz’s first Israel Conference on Peace with his cane. That was the last time we met.

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