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.