The Prime Minister's office said in a statement that he died at home. It did not give a cause of death but he had been ill recently.
Born Ben-Zion Mileikowsky in Warsaw, Poland, Netanyahu was a devout follower of revisionist Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, who advocated Jewish military strength and opposed partitioning Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Netanyahu served as his personal aide until Jabotinsky's death in 1940.
He then edited right-wing Jewish publications and earned a Ph.D in history from Dropsie College in Philadelphia, a center of Jewish learning that was later incorporated into the University of Pennsylvania. Later, he was a professor of Jewish history and Hebrew literature at the University of Denver and Cornell University, where he served as chairman of the department of Semitic languages and literature. He was the editor-in-chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia for more than a decade.
He was best known in academic circles for his research into the medieval inquisition against the Jews of Spain.
His academic career had his family shuttling between the United States and Israel. He met with many Jewish leaders of the period, as well as with U.S. senators, Congressional representatives, poets and
Netanyahu and his wife, Tzila, had three sons: Yonatan, Benjamin and Iddo, all of whom served in the same elite military commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. Yonatan was killed while commanding the daring 1976 rescue of more than 100 Jewish and Israeli hostages on board an Air France jet in Entebbe, Uganda.
Following his son's death, Netanyahu returned to Israel full-time. His middle son, Benjamin, entered politics and was elected prime minister of Israel in 1996 and again in 2009. Iddo, the youngest of the three, is a radiologist and writer.
Netanyahu is believed to have had great influence over his son's politics and openly criticized him when his government made concessions toward the Palestinians.
Several analysts have speculated that Benjamin Netanyahu was emotionally unable to sign off on a comprehensive peace deal with Israel's Arabs neighbors as long as his father was still alive, a notion the prime minister dismissed as "psychobabble."
In newspaper interviews late in life, Ben-Zion Netanyahu forcefully questioned the feasibility of Mideast peace.
"The tendency to conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won't allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn't matter what kind of resistance he will meet, what price he will pay. His existence is one of perpetual war," he told the Maariv daily in 2009. "The Arab citizens' goal is to destroy us. They don't deny that they want to destroy us."