Netanyahu Brought Nationalism to the 21st Century

The Israeli prime minister’s playbook has been emulated by populist leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro. Will it win him another term?

Netanyahu and his wife Sara make a campaign stop at a market in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, make a campaign stop at a market in Tel Aviv. (Tomer Appelbaum / Reuters)

JERUSALEM—From character assassinations against opponents to dog-whistle politics, from criticizing the media to undermining law and order, the nationalist-populist playbook was pioneered by one leader perhaps more so than any other.

He has been feted by President Donald Trump. Brazil’s new right-wing leader, Jair Bolsonaro, paid him a visit in March. The Italian politician Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigrant interior minister of Italy, told me last year that he was an “inspiration.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the front line of Israeli debate since the 1980s, but this week he faces the prospect of political mortality, with parliamentary elections leaving open the very real possibility that his time in office might be over. Yet whether or not he retains his post, whether or not he ever really believed the things he said—supporters of his argue that for “Bibi,” the nationalist rhetoric has always been a vehicle, not a core belief—his efforts have been emulated the world over by right-wing populists. And, as a result, he may well have left a lasting stain not just on his own legacy, but on his party, and on a particular brand of liberal Jewish nationalism.

In Hebrew, there are two related words for nationalism, but they have vastly different meanings. The more benign or positive form is leumiut, whereas chauvinistic jingoism is leumanut. When Israelis call themselves nationalists, they insist on using the former—whether or not it is accurate.

Netanyahu defined his own version of Jewish nationalism in his 1993 book as the right for Jews to defend themselves. In it, he describes nationalism as “a central driving force in global affairs” and bemoans the fact that Jewish nationalism is seen by many as immoral. “A culture that is truly political assumes that the mustering of support and the periodic exercise of political power is a natural and inevitable part of the ongoing struggle to survive,” Netanyahu wrote. “But for the Jews, even reimplanting an understanding of the elementary need for military power entailed a bitter battle to overcome the entrenched view that Jews ought to have nothing to do with armies.”

The Likud Party, which Netanyahu joined in 1988, and its historical forerunners have long been a home for both types of nationalists. In the 1920s, Ze’ev Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist Zionist Alliance, a group that took its inspiration from Italian nationalists. Jabotinsky himself was an early critic of fascism, particularly the leadership cult fostered by Benito Mussolini, but even within his Revisionist movement, there was a so-called maximalist faction, which sought to imitate Italian fascism. Bibi’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, was among them. Benzion, an activist and journalist in the 1930s and 1940s, was a loyal follower of Jabotinsky, but he was close to the maximalist wing. In Israel’s first elections, in 1949, he refused to support Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s successor and the founder of a predecessor to Likud—Netanyahu Sr. saw Begin as weak.

Likud, which means “consolidation” in Hebrew, was founded in 1973, from the merger of five right-wing and centrist parties. The new party was described by Begin at its founding as leumit liberalit—“national liberal”—and that has remained part of Likud’s official title to this day, under Bibi. Netanyahu’s leadership, however, has drawn that description into question.

Begin “always kept both the national and liberal elements alive within Likud,” Dan Meridor, Begin’s cabinet secretary and a sometimes-ally of Netanyahu’s, told me. Begin believed that Israel should hold on to its land, but that Palestinians deserved equal rights, and he held the rule of law and the courts in high regard, Meridor recounted. “In all my private conversations with Netanyahu, I felt we agreed on all these things,” he continued, “but then he would go out and act differently.”

That dissonance was apparent early on. In Netanyahu’s first election as the Likud leader in 1996, he hired the famed Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who has been credited with making the label liberal into a dirty word. He crafted a campaign for Netanyahu that included an upbeat outlook, with promises of a “secure peace,” as well as relentless attack ads falsely accusing his rival, Shimon Peres, of conspiring with the Palestinians to “divide Jerusalem.” That campaign resulted in a narrow victory for Netanyahu, and his first stint as prime minister.

Over the years, Netanyahu’s messaging has ditched the positivity and focused on fear. Take the time in December 2014 when he fired two senior ministers for trying to unseat him by working with other parties to form an alternative coalition—a perfectly legal move in Israel’s parliamentary democracy. Netanyahu described their efforts as, “in one word, a putsch.” He appears to see himself as an extension of the state and, to hear him tell it, you would think he has a personal mandate from the Israeli people and isn’t the leader of just one party that, under his leadership, has failed to ever receive more than a quarter of the national vote.

Ahead of this week’s elections, Netanyahu has been as convinced as ever that his victory is the only legitimate outcome, and that if he loses it will be because of the leftist media, even calling their reporting a “witch hunt” (remind you of anybody?). “As far as the media is concerned,” he said in January, “all the means are kosher to impose the left’s rule against the people’s will.” He was, at the time, railing against news of the police investigations against him. Those inquiries have since culminated in preliminary indictments for bribery and fraud, announced by Israel’s attorney general in February. Two of three cases against Netanyahu concern alleged attempts to pressure owners of media groups to shift their journalists’ coverage in his favor in return for the prime minister’s intervention in legislation and regulation to their benefit.

Supporters, and even some critics, insist that Netanyahu’s rhetoric is opportunistic, that he is not so much a nationalist as an instrumentalist. Yisrael Harel, a founder and early ideologue of the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank, was once close to Netanyahu, but in recent years has called for his resignation. He is convinced that Netanyahu is at heart much more of a liberal nationalist than meets the eye. “He’s just a hitchhiker who is using these new nationalists,” Harel told me. He believes that the Israeli prime minister feels a “deep responsibility” for Jewish people as a whole; the problem, though, is that “power is everything for him,” Harel said. As proof, he pointed to Netanyahu’s shifting position on the nation-state law, a chauvinistic piece of legislation that enshrines the Jewish people’s ownership of Israeli land without mentioning any form of equality for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Proposed by backbench parliamentarians, it languished for years. Suddenly in mid-2018, with an election in sight, Netanyahu evinced a passion for the issue, ramming the law through the Knesset despite the opposition’s protestations that such a piece of legislation should be passed in a consensual manner.

It is thus left to others, such as Yael Tamir, to make a case for a more liberal form of nationalism. Tamir served as the education minister under Netanyahu’s rival in the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, and recently published a book arguing for as much. To her, Netanyahu uses the tactics of the new wave of nationalist leaders, but isn’t actually a xenophobe himself. “The pressures of recent years, the investigations against him, and the legal challenge have pushed him to use the most dirty tricks which he has borrowed from the populists and the xenophobes,” Tamir, now a lecturer in political philosophy at Oxford University, told me. “The Netanyahu of recent years is one who is no longer differentiating between the mainstream and the far margins of the right wing.”

There is no room in today’s Likud—or, indeed, in Netanyahu’s worldview more generally—for the party’s old guard or for others who believe in a form of liberal nationalism. Meridor and like-minded former party members are planning to vote for the former general Benny Gantz, who has a slim chance of winning. Netanyahu, true to form, has tried to portray Gantz as a “weak leftist” who is conspiring to form a coalition with Arab parties “who are against the Jewish state.”

Whether Netanyahu ever believed in a less toxic form of nationalism is now immaterial, though. For Israelis, he is the same person who Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Bolsonaro see—the man who redefined Jewish nationalism in his own image.