September/October 2000

Judgement Day - Israel Facing Apocalypse

By Ari Shavit
Ha'aretz 6 October 2000
Former Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau - Israel facing apocalypse: Concessions to the Arabs are destroying the foundations of Zionism, Aharon Barak is leading a juridical dictatorship and Israelis are no longer willing to fight
For years, former Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau has maintained a self-imposed silence - even when he was involved in investigating some of the most painful episodes in Israel's history. But now he's really worried. The State of Israel, he believes, is facing an apocalypse: Concessions to the Arabs are destroying the foundations of Zionism, Aharon Barak is leading a juridical dictatorship and Israelis are no longer willing to fight

Both as an active Supreme Court justice and as a retired one, it fell to Moshe Landau to deal with the legal aspects of three major traumatic episodes involving the Jewish nation during the last half-century.In 1960, he was the chairman of the special tribunal that presided over the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In 1973-74, as a member of the Agranat Commission, Landau investigated the failures relating to the Yom Kippur War and, in 1987, he served as chairman of the government commission that bears his name, which reviewed and rewrote the rules for Shin Bet interrogations.

In all three instances, Moshe Landau applied the same dry and cautious method of hearing testimony, examining evidence, and drawing legal conclusions.

Throughout his 42 years as judge, and in the 18 years that have passed since he retired from his position as president of the Supreme Court, Landau deliberately refrained from making direct public statements on ideological or political topics. True to his Prussian and British upbringing, his stiff moral character and his deep sense of commitment to the Jewish state and to the Israeli system of justice, Moshe Landau kept quiet.

Even when he was attacked, he held his tongue. Even when he felt that very grave things were occurring in the government and in the legal world. For the most part, he expressed his views in closed forums or in professional journals - though always in his typically controlled and measured language.

But Justice Landau can no longer contain himself. When he welcomes me into his home in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, and invites me to sit among the piles of books and contemporary journals surrounding the grand piano in the center of the room, he speaks unabashedly about apocalypse, about the possibility of total destruction. And he says these harsh and disturbing things like someone conducting a coldly rational analysis of that which is most dear to him, without growing agitated or raising his voice. At age 88, Landau speaks slowly, clearly and eloquently, his words sketching a gloomy reality.

Tall and energetic, Landau makes a strong impression. He is quite proud of the fact that he still plays the piano (just yesterday, his chamber quartet was making beautiful music until 11:00 at night).

He closely follows current events in Israel and the world, as well as the latest developments in legal thought, and local legal rulings. He projects a fascinating combination of principled firmness and gusto for life, of strict conservatism tinged with a winning vitality.

Every so often, his wife Leah, with whom he has lived in enviable harmony for 63 years, admonishes him not to exaggerate, not to be too blunt. But he looks at her with a twinkle in his eye and says, "Nu, at my age, I can permit myself to say these things. I can speak the truth." Breaking the silence Justice Landau, in the past you refused to give interviews. You've never granted an interview to a regular, non-law-related newspaper. Why have you decided to break your silence?

"I also hesitated a lot this time. Because I've always felt that, even after retirement, judges should refrain from making public statements about issues that are a matter of public debate. That's how I behaved and that's how I advised my colleagues to behave. And that's what I wrote at the time when I composed the judicial code of ethics. Thus, it wasn't easy for me to break with this general approach.

"But today I feel that things have reached a crisis point. Things are happening now that are causing me to lose sleep - things that truly make me anxious for the survival of the state. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that I can no longer keep silent."

You fear for the state's survival?

"Yes. I'll say it outright: I fear for the state's survival. I think that the existence of the Jewish state is in danger. I see great external dangers facing us. But the internal dangers are even bigger: the general feeling of bewilderment, the confusion of concepts, the social disintegration. And the weakness of the national will, the lack of readiness to fight for our lives. The illusion that peace will obviate our need to fight and defend ourselves. These things give me no rest. They really keep me awake and are affecting my physical health."

Let's start with the external dangers. We appear to be on the eve of the signing of a peace agreement. In such a situation, what is there to fear?

"I'm sorry to say this, but on this matter, I'm very extreme: I don't think we have any partner with whom to make peace agreements. I believe that we face adversaries who are much more clever than we are. Adversaries who know that they have to proceed in stages. As far as they're concerned, things are entirely clear: They don't want us here. But in the meantime, they're prepared to make do with whatever they can get at each stage, that moves them closer to their ultimate objective.

"In the best-case scenario, that objective is to establish a new state here in which Jews who arrived before a certain date will be given the right to become citizens. But in the worst-case scenario, that objective is to conduct an ethnic cleansing campaign in Israel, not to leave any Jews here at all. I never forget what the secretary of the Arab League, Izam Pasha, said on the eve of the War of Independence. He said that if the Jews don't accept and obey the Arabs' demands, there will be a bloodbath here next to which the murderous deeds of the Mongols and the Crusaders would pale in comparison.

"I take these statements literally. And I think that this is the apocalypse threatening the State of Israel."

You really fear that the country could be wiped out?

"Yes. When I say that I can't sleep at night, this is the reason. People my age remember the bloody events that happened here before the state was founded. We know what happened to the Jews in Hebron in 1929. I'm afraid that the same kind of thing could reoccur, but in much larger dimensions. Not just in Hebron, but in the entire country."

Potential bloodbath

"It's the end of the state that I'm envisioning. I'm afraid that if we continue with politics that project weakness, we may come to a situation in which each of us is compelled to worry not just about the survival of the collective, but about his own individual survival. There could be a bloodbath here.

"The biggest danger that I see is Islam. We have fine, naive people who see Muslim officials as some kind of partners in dialogue. But from Islam's point of view, the Jews are a nation whose sovereignty cannot be recognized in any part of the lands that Islam claims for itself. So, if we agree to recognize the supremacy of Islam and to concede our political independence, then they'll tolerate us. But if we do not agree to that, they will not tolerate us. They will work against us using violent means of terror.

"Moreover, on the maps that are hanging in Palestinian Authority classrooms, the State of Israel does not exist. Because this is the situation toward which they are striving. This is their ambition. There may be rivalries between Arafat's regime and Hamas and the other Islamic factions, but they'll act in concert against Israel.

"It's obvious to me that when people read this, many will say that Landau is just a grumbling old coward. That we're making the peace of the brave, while Landau is just scared.

"But I say that it's actually some of those who believe in a 'peace of the brave' who are the real cowards. Because they are the ones who say that if we don't make peace immediately and at any price, all is lost. That we're destined for ruin. So they chase after Arafat and beg him to agree to our huge concessions. Because they're trying to salvage whatever can be salvaged. To salvage some kind of enclave, some kind of Jewish canton a la Singapore around Gush Dan. But, of course, this is also an illusion."

You seem to have adopted the worldview of the opposition, of the right.

"I'm not a political person. I'm not a rightist or a leftist. By nature, I'm a moderate person. I was a moderate judge and I'm also moderate in my thinking about political issues. But I cannot close my eyes to such great dangers. Especially when they're so obvious. And I think that the nation cannot gamble, nor can it live under illusions.

"There's one thing that I'm not prepared to be ashamed of: I am a Zionist. I think that Zionism is the only one of the great ideologies of the 20th century that has proved its veracity. That's why I find it odd to see it now being pushed into a situation in which it must defend itself. And I am vehemently opposed to all the strange ideas now being bandied about that could lead to the collapse of the Jewish state and its assimilation into the surrounding region.

"This is why I'm opposed to concessions on the Temple Mount and in Jerusalem's Old City. Symbols, history and national honor - the things that we tend to be dismissive of nowadays - are also important. To me, Zionism is the longing for Zion. And what is Zion if not the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the Old City? I'm not a religious man. I'm secular. But I cannot deny the importance of the Temple Mount that stands at the center of the Jewish faith. Jews throughout the generations have yearned for it."

'Barak is no B-G'

"In my grandmother's house, there was a tapestry on the wall on which a scene of the Temple Mount was woven. And in 1967, when Uzi Narkiss announced that the Temple Mount was in our hands, I admit that the tears flowed from my eyes. And I'm not an emotional person. But I knew that a truly historic event was happening. That we had fulfilled our dream. That's why it hurts me so much to see what's going on now, to see this deterioration. And these creative ideas whereby Arafat will be sitting up high in the mosques and we'll be down below like moles. Or the idea of 'internationalizing' the Old City.

"I was born in the free city of Danzig and I know what internationalization means. I know that it's the seed for the next war. World War II began in Danzig, after all - in an international city. All of these ideas are misguided. We're undermining ourselves more and more. We're heading toward political and national suicide."

Don't you trust Prime Minister Barak and the way he's steering the political process?

"I believe that Ehud Barak is a patriot. Even though that word, 'patriot,' is not so politically correct these days. The prime minister is unquestionably a person of very high intelligence who possesses political survival instincts. But I fear that because of his desire to please the Americans, he's been drawn into making concessions that are now undermining the very foundations of Zionism. Unfortunately, I have to say that he's become confused and lost his way."

The prime minister is fond of comparing himself with Ben-Gurion. You knew Ben-Gurion. Is there any similarity between them?

"No. Ben-Gurion was a very bold statesman. When he decided to announce the establishment of the state, he sensed the beating of the wings of history where others failed to do so. And who knows what would have become of us had he not dared to act as he did in the face of the major powers. But on the other hand, he was extremely realistic. When he withdrew the Israel Defense Forces from the Sinai following the 1956 campaign, it was a very difficult, but necessary, thing to do. Because he understood the historical reality. And this special combination of political vision and realism was unique. That's why, sadly, I have to say that Ehud Barak is no Ben-Gurion. Nor do I like this pretension of, 'Not only am I Rabin's successor, I'm also Ben-Gurion's successor.' There's an unseemly arrogance to it."

Justice Landau, what is your opinion of Supreme Court President Aharon Barak?

"Aharon Barak is a genius. There's no doubt that if he were a religious man and the head of a yeshiva, he would be one of the foremost rabbis, perhaps the head of the Council of Sages. He also has a tremendous capacity for work. Aharon Barak is a man who can master vast amounts of academic and legal material, and he has also produced a long series of thick volumes of academic writings.

"The Supreme Court president also knows his way around the various precincts of the Israeli government. He manages to dominate not only in the court system but also in academia and in the 'legal media.' He leaves his personal mark on the legal community as a whole.

"Yet, in my view, President Barak is leading the Supreme Court and the judicial authority down the wrong road. This precious man is a riddle to me. I don't have an answer to the question of what makes Aharon Barak tick."

What is it about the direction the Supreme Court president is taking, and his legal persona, that isn't to your liking?

"Aharon Barak has wonderful personal traits. He's truly a nice fellow - a very likable person who's ready to help others and is very sensitive when it comes to personal relations. Still, with Barak, there's a certain quality, a kind of stubbornness, that I find unbefitting. And when he deems an objective worthy, he has to achieve it come what may."

Is the problem that the end justifies the means for him?

"I think that Supreme Court President Aharon Barak has not, and does not, accept the rightful place that the court should have among the various authorities in our regime."

Is it his goal to interject the court into all areas of our lives?

"Not to interject the court, but to interject certain moral values as he deems appropriate. And this amounts to a kind of judicial dictatorship that I find completely inappropriate."

Do you feel that he is inclined to concentrate more and more power in the system that he heads?

"Yes - governmental power. And I feel this is wrong. It leads to a dead end. Because the court in getting in over its head, in a morass of political opinions and beliefs. And this is dangerous both for the state and for the court. It's dangerous for the state because it intensifies the social rifts. And it's dangerous for the court because it leads the court to lose the main foundation upon which it bases its standing: the faith in the impartiality of the legal system concerning matters of public disagreement."

Loss of humility

"When the court represents a certain view, progressive as it may be, it infuriates a significant part of the public, which then begins to crudely attack it. But, unfortunately, I have to say that the court contributes to this situation when it enters into an area that is not rightfully in its purview, when it takes it upon itself to rule on matters of belief and opinion that, by all rights, ought to be decided in the Knesset."

Has the court lost its humility?

"Most definitely. It displays arrogance and pretension. In 'The Republic,' Plato suggested entrusting the government of the republic to a class of elders who were specially trained and educated for this purpose.

"It sometimes seems to me that most of the justices on the Supreme Court see themselves more or less as governing elders. In my view, this tendency is improper. First of all, because the justices take upon themselves a role that they are incapable of fulfilling, one that they haven't been trained to perform - because they were trained to judge, not to govern. Moreover, the idea of the parliament as sovereign is undermined. You have the court being placed above the parliament.

"Hence, I would like to see more restraint. In 'Ethics of the Fathers,' we a re told to be moderate when sitting in judgment. And that's just what the court needs - moderation, cautious progress."

Do you fear that judicial activism and the relentless effort to place the court above all other authorities may actually end up endangering the court itself?

"Yes. I belong to the first generations that founded the judicial system in Israel. You could say I'm one of the 'dinosaurs.' And this system is very precious to me. I love it and believe in it. But here, too, things have reached the crisis point. And today, I truly fear for the proper future of the legal system. Because it is being led in a way that, sooner or later, will surely cause the court's public standing to be diminished. Already there are entire sectors of the public that truly despise the Supreme Court. And this process undermines the integrity of the judicial authority.

"A while ago, I warned Aharon Barak about what's happening. I went to him and I told him that he's living in this beautiful court building as if in an aquarium. That neither he nor the other justices that go along with him are sensitive enough to what's going on outside of the aquarium. I told him that they aren't sufficiently attentive to what the public is feeling and to what many lawyers are also sensing. And these are some very tough things."

What are these things? What's the heart of the problem?

"Basically, there are two different problems deriving from this activist approach that the court has adopted. The first problem is the one I already described to you: The court and those justices who go along with Aharon Barak take a certain approach to questions which are occupying the mind of the public. President Barak has his own conception regarding what he refers to as the deep values of Israeli society.

"But this conception is essentially what Aharon Barak [chooses to believe] in at any given moment. It could all change next year. And no less serious is that the deep values in question are basically those of a certain sector of our public. So when the court speaks in their name and rules in their name, it oversteps its neutrality and arouses opposition."

Weighty vs. mundane

"The other problem deriving from that same activism is that many lawyers and citizens are getting the feeling that the court is too busy pondering the weighty matters of the world, and not sufficiently interested in the more mundane, daily matters affecting ordinary citizens. People have the sense that the justices prefer to compose lengthy dissertations defining values and dealing with general philosophy, and that they're not as interested in the less glamorous side of judicial work and in settling conflicts.

"If the Or Commission's reform is adopted, the situation will only get worse, since I doubt if the main goal of this reform is to transform the Magistrate's Court into a general court. I think the reform is intended to narrow access to the Supreme Court so that it can be like the Supreme Court in Washington. This causes frustration and sometimes even despair among lawyers arguing before the court, as well as among lower-level judges."

If I'm not mistaken, you also object to the constitutional process as it has developed in Israel since 1992.

"When the Basic Laws were passed in the Knesset in 1992, a large portion of the Knesset members had no idea at all what the laws that they were affirming meant, and only several dozen members voted - less than half the Knesset plenum. This process was absolutely not serious. It was a deception.

"The next stage in the process was when the court relied on the new Basic Laws to grant itself the authority to invalidate primary legislation by the Knesset. It did this when the nine justices wrote the decision in the 1995 Gal case [Bank Hamizrahi v. Migdal]. And since then, bit by bit, the court has been taking control of Knesset legislation.

"When the court foments this far-reaching revolution, it bases its actions on the famous American precedent in the case of Marbury v. Madison. This was a ruling by [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] John Marshall in which he gave the court the authority to be the interpreter of the constitution and to invalidate unconstitutional decisions made by other governmental authorities.

"The thing is, the United States does have a constitution. Even though Justice Marshall's decision was problematic, at least there was something to base it on. In contrast, in Israel, the very decision that states that we have a constitution that includes court oversight of Knesset legislation was made by the court itself. That's a completely different matter.

"Here, the court is giving itself priority. I feel this process is improper. In the end, what happened as a result ... is that we accept as self-evident concepts and ideas that have not been properly considered, and that have not been approved through an appropriate process."

Wisdom, not arrogance

"Essentially, I believe that every constitution consists of at least two sections: A section defining the system of government and the relations between the various authorities, and a section defining the citizen's rights. I believe that when we come to draw up a constitution, we must begin with the first section. And I think that it would be proper for this section to be under Supreme Court oversight. But here we are, again, starting out with the second section, the section on civil rights.

"I adamantly object to the court having the right to oversight of the parliament in these matters. I think that, in this way, the court gets caught up in political and ideological questions that it is neither capable or empowered to answer.

"A justice is not the leader of a generation and he's not a philosopher-king. His job is much more modest: to be a faithful interpreter of the law, and of the public will expressed by the Knesset as the public's representative. That's why I believe that judicial wisdom requires caution, sensitivity and much careful consideration - without arrogance."

In a 1970 ruling regarding "Who is a Jew?," you determined, together with Justice Agranat, that the subject is not for the courts to decide. Do you still feel today that matters of religion and state do not belong in the courts?

"Every generalization is true up to a certain point. There was at least one case in which I actually angered the rabbis when I threatened to act in place of the rabbinical court if it evaded its responsibility to do its job. But, as a rule, I think that the court cannot contribute much on this subject. The court has to aspire to consensus. And in these cases of questions of religion and state, it can only cause dissonance by representing a particular position that, while it may have wide public backing, is not the only stance.

"Therefore, it is my opinion that the court must respect the letter and spirit of the law. The law is what represents the political compromise that has been reached and [the court] shouldn't exceed the area laid out by the law."

The Supreme Court recently made two dramatic rulings regarding sensitive national issues - the decision in the matter of Katzir (the ruling that prohibited residents of Katzir from preventing an Israeli Arab from residing in the community on the basis of his ethnic background), and the decision regarding Shin Bet interrogations (prohibiting torture). What did you think of these rulings?

"I'm opposed to the Katzir ruling because it ignores the fact that we are a state that is defending itself and which cannot commit suicide. There are certain statements in this ruling from which one can see that the value of equality is held to be supreme. Equality at any price. And I ask: Even if equality brings about the destruction of the state? After all, the Katzir ruling touches on some very painful problems.

"Here you have the possibility of uprooting stretches of land from the state, of creating irredenta. And if we ignore that and come to terms with the plan of action of the radical nationalists among the Arab minority to cut off the Galilee and the Negev from the State of Israel, this country could end up being crushed. It could be suicide."

Question of survival

What do you think about the court's decision to completely outlaw torture?

"The decision regarding Shin Bet interrogations perhaps was correct. I read over this ruling and I have to say that, from a legal standpoint, it's not a misguided ruling. And it reinforces the view that I expressed already several years ago: Today, there is an urgent need for a Shin Bet law that would regulate interrogations as well, because with the legal situation that currently prevails, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty makes every interrogation involving any physical or psychological pressure illegal.

"Since, given Israel's security situation, there's no escaping the need to conduct interrogations in order to uncover plans for major acts of terrorism, there is an urgent and vital need to regulate, in a special law, just what is sanctioned and what is prohibited in interrogations."

Wouldn't such a law be a blot on the Israeli law code?

"I'm very familiar with this argument. I argue in response that no other nation is in as dangerous a security situation as is Israel. For us, unlike for nations such as Holland and France, the security question is a question of survival. Here we're talking about the very existence of the state and its citizens' right to live. Therefore, the situation here is unusual. And because it is, if interrogations are not regulated by law, a 'twilight zone' is definitely created. I learned about what happens in the twilight zone when we sat on the commission of inquiry known as the Landau Commission. I learned that terrible things happen in the twilight zone.

"It may be comfortable for the public to sit on the green grass in front of its house and not to be aware that a huge sewer pipe full of waste products is passing underneath him. But that's precisely the situation. And that provides an opening for the corruption and for the application of real torture. Therefore, anyone who wishes to prevent this must not ignore reality or be hypocritical and must agree to the legislation of a Shin Bet law."

Do you regret what you decided with the Landau Commission - the permission that you granted the Shin Bet to use moderate physical pressure?

"I know that the words 'moderate physical pressure' have followed me to this day, and they will continue to follow me the rest of my life. But I don't regret it. I don't regret anything that Yitzhak Hofi, Yaakov Maltz and I wrote in that report. Because I think that we did something very important: We brought these things into the open. We believed that nothing else would have such a purifying effect."

But didn't you sanction torture?

"Certainly not. When we submitted our report, the late Yitzhak Rabin told me that the means of interrogation we allowed were insufficient, that they wouldn't permit the Shin Bet to function. Our report also said that a ministerial committee could periodically review the interrogation guidelines that we formulated. And as far as I know, this ministerial committee made the rules even stricter. Occasionally, it added interrogation methods that we'd disallowed. We actually prohibited torture and introduced order into the whole matter of interrogations.

"There's one subject I can address specifically: tiltulim ('shaking'), of the kind that, in one instance, caused the death of a man under interrogation. The state investigation into the circumstances of his death found that there was a vast difference between what we had defined as tiltul and what was actually done by the Shin Bet interrogators."

Did the Shin Bet exploit the commission's report?

"They betrayed us."


"I don't want to go into detail. A few things are still pending, and are currently before the courts. But I told the Shin Bet people that we felt betrayed. Because we'd given them credit. We saw some very serious things. We saw standards that were corrupted. We saw how the twilight zone really corrupted the Shin Bet. But the late Shin Bet chief Harmlin revealed everything to us and promised to clean house. And I think that he really intended to do so.

"But those who succeeded him behaved differently. Apparently, there were double messages once again. There was the written code - the Landau Commission - and another, oral code in the field. And this is a terrible thing. Because, within the security service, there must be an absolute truth. If this truth falls apart, woe be it to the service to whom the state has entrusted such a vital function and woe be it to all of us."

On another matter: What did you think about the Aryeh Deri affair? About the court's ruling in Deri's case?

"The District Court was headed by Judge Tzemah. He had Judge Mira Naor, whom I highly admire and cherish, at his side. I have no doubt that the judges determined the facts based on the material presented to them, and that they gave it a correct and professional interpretation. But I found the tone of the ruling too categorical. It bothered me. I didn't like that."

And what is your opinion of the attorney general's report to the government on the Weizman affair?

"In my opinion, the state is lucky to have Elyakim Rubinstein sitting in the attorney general's seat. But, just as I don't think judges ought to be composing dissertations, I don't think the attorney general ought to be writing quasi-rulings in the guise of public opinions. In the Ezer Weizman case, it would have been enough to cite the explicit instruction in the Basic Law on the presidency that says the president of the state may not be tried for a criminal offense."

Justice Landau, you started off by saying that you are very worried. Of all the things you spoke of, what worries you most?

"The weakening of Zionism. I hear a lot of people saying that we have to make concessions to the Arabs so that our grandchildren will be able to sleep peacefully. Of course, I also want my grandchildren, and all of our grandchildren, to be able to sleep peacefully. But I think that Zionism hasn't yet completed its work, and that the time has not yet come to be content with la dolce vita.

"I think that if we do not renew the Zionist spirit, I might be able to sit quietly in the corner of my house until the end of my life, but I don't know if my grandchildren will be able to sleep peacefully in this land. I don't think they'll have security here. And they could conclude that it was all a mistake and that it's better to cut your losses and leave while it's still possible.

"The situation today sometimes reminds me of the situation before the Yom Kippur War. I'm especially disturbed by our blindness. We act as if we've already reached a state of relaxation and security. We always see the injustice that has been done to the other side, but not the disaster that could befall us. These are things that arise from our national character. It's a kind of self-hatred. And it causes weakness, fatigue, self-deception and a lack of preparedness to fight.

"Among other things, in this regard, I have some serious complaints against the media. It has fallen into the hands of a minority group that is trying to dictate to the public what to think. I believe that when the media seeks to steer public opinion in a certain direction, it becomes a very dangerous tool. As a result, even in the government, image becomes more important than reality.

"But it's not just the media. It's a kind of general public atmosphere that's also expressed in academia and in the courts. It disturbs me very much. It sometimes makes me think of the Titanic - about how when the Titanic was already beginning to sink to the depths of the ocean, in the upper halls, the orchestra was still playing gay operetta tunes.

"I don't mean it to sound as if I'm depressed. I'm worried, but I haven't despaired. I believe that there are many people in this country looking forward to some kind of revival, to a reawakening. That's what we need today - a renewal of the vision and a renewal of the Zionist spirit. Because in the absence of a vision, a nation will become unhinged; with us, this tendency is very great.

"We Jews still have to prove ourselves as free people who enjoy full civil rights but also know that the citizen has obligations to his country. And we have to prove ourselves as a nation that knows how to perpetuate a state. This is not at all a sure thing. We have to prove that we know how to live as citizens of a republic that is capable of surviving."

Moshe Landau was born in Danzig, Germany in 1912, and studied law in London in the early 1930s. A few years after immigrating, at age 28, he was appointed as a magistrate in Mandatory Palestine. In 1948, he became a district judge in Haifa and in, 1953, was appointed a Supreme Court justice. From 1976-1980, he served as deputy president of the Supreme Court and served as Supreme Court president from 1980-1982.

In all his years on the bench, Landau gained a reputation as an efficient, businesslike judge known for his dry manner. In 1960, he was the main judge in the Eichmann trial. In 1965, as chairman of the Central Election Commission, he disqualified the Al-Ard list, arguing that it undermined the state's integrity. In 1969, he was the first judge to nullify a piece of Knesset legislation (the Bader-Ofer party financing law), arguing that it went counter to the principle of equality.

A year later, he objected to the court's interference in the "Who is a Jew?" matter. In 1973-4, he was a member of the Agranat Commission and, in the 1980 Alon Moreh ruling, he prohibited the expropriation of Arab land for the purpose of building settlements.

In many cases, Landau defended freedom of expression and the public's right to know, but in 1979, he upheld the censorship that disallowed a pro-Palestinian film. He is widely thought of as a security hawk, but alongside his commitment to national security and Zionist values, he has generally represented good, solid common sense.

Landau dislikes slogans and fancy semantics, as well as creative jurisprudence and willful interpretation. He prefers to stick to the law as it is. Ironically, he is the one who coined the phrase "hatzibur ha'na'or" ("the enlightened public"), which, years later, has been used by Justice Aharon Barak in a broader way that is positively antithetical to Landau's outlook.

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