Benjamin Netanyahu and Elon Musk to Meet, as Both Seek to Shrug Off Criticism

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Elon Musk, the owner of X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter, have both faced intense scrutiny and criticism for most of the year.

Mr. Netanyahu has been the target of a nine-month wave of mass protests against his deeply contentious effort to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court. Mr. Musk, among other things, has been accused of tolerating and even encouraging a surge of antisemitic abuse on X.

On Monday morning, the two men were set to find a respite from those furors — in each other’s company. Mr. Netanyahu took a 15-hour overnight flight to meet Mr. Musk in California, where the Israeli prime minister has said they will discuss artificial intelligence and how to develop it in Israel.

For Mr. Netanyahu, an encounter with the world’s richest man — ostensibly to promote tech investment in Israel — provides a riposte to claims that his government’s judicial overhaul has put off investors and harmed Israel’s tech sector.

For Mr. Musk, the meeting with the leader of the world’s only Jewish state gives him a chance to deflect a barrage of criticism from American Jews who say he has allowed X to become a vessel for antisemitic hatred.

“Netanyahu is looking for any victories he can get, and if he is able to get Musk to promise high-tech investment in Israel and declare that Israel remains an A.I. leader, it will burnish his argument that he remains the best shepherd of Israel’s economy,” said Michael J. Koplow, an analyst at the Israeli Policy Forum, a research group in New York.

“As for Musk, he will point to a warm meeting with Netanyahu as a shield against accusations of antisemitism,” Mr. Koplow added.

The meeting was arranged at Mr. Musk’s suggestion and followed several calls in recent weeks between the two men, according to Mr. Netanyahu’s office.

Mr. Netanyahu was scheduled to leave again on Monday evening on another overnight flight, to New York, where he is set to meet President Biden and make a speech to the United Nations General Assembly later in the week.

Elon Musk, the owner of X, formerly Twitter, at an artificial intelligence forum on Capitol Hill in Washington this month.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The visit comes against a backdrop of rising unrest in Israel over Mr. Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the power of the judiciary. Mr. Netanyahu says his judicial program enhances democracy by giving elected lawmakers greater autonomy from unelected judges, but critics say it will make the government unaccountable, undermine the rule of law, and make Israel a riskier place to do business.

Economists, senior bankers and Israeli business leaders, including tech entrepreneurs who helped make Israel a cyber superpower, have said the overhaul, which has yet to be enacted in full, will harm Israel’s economy.

“Save Our Start-Up Nation,” has been a common slogan at anti-government protests this year.

Some tech firms say they have begun to move investments and operations elsewhere; ratings agencies have expressed concerns about Israel’s economic stability; and some reservists in Israel’s cyberintelligence units have said they will not continue to serve while the overhaul is in progress.

Shortly before taking off for California, Mr. Netanyahu presented the meeting with Mr. Musk as evidence that he remained a guardian of Israel’s economy, rather than a burden on it.

“This man to a large extent leads the process that will change the face of humanity and also change the face of the State of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said of Mr. Musk.

“I will discuss with him the subject of artificial intelligence, and I will also push for him to invest in Israel in the coming years,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

“Israel should be a leader in the subject of artificial intelligence, and just as we made it a leader in the cyber sector, so we will do in this field, too,” he added.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s narrative may yet be drowned out by protests against him. As he arrived at the airport in Israel to catch his flight early Monday, scores of demonstrators gathered outside the main terminal to see him off.

Thousands are also set to protest against him in the Bay Area and New York this week, and anti-Netanyahu messages have already been projected onto the walls of the United Nations headquarters in New York and the former prison island of Alcatraz off San Francisco.

One of their messages is that Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr. Musk offers little help to Israel’s economy.

Because of Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, “the stock exchange is going in the wrong direction, investments are not coming in,” said Offir Gutelzon, an Israeli tech entrepreneur based in Palo Alto, Calif., who is organizing protests this week in the Bay Area. “To get investments like we did, we need the prime minister to stop the judicial coup.”

Unlike the protesters Mr. Netanyahu has typically encountered on previous visits to the United States, this week’s rallies have mainly been called by expatriate Israelis and American Jews who support Israel but oppose Mr. Netanyahu.

On the eve of his departure, Mr. Netanyahu accused the protesters of finding common cause with Iran, one of Israel’s biggest foes. The claim led the news bulletins in Israel and was widely rejected by protest organizers and opposition politicians.

“This is not an anti-Israel rally, it’s a pro-Israel rally,” Mr. Gutelzon said.

A protest against Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul on Sunday in Tel Aviv.Credit…Amir Cohen/Reuters

“We are not happy to do it,” Mr. Gutelzon added. “We are doing it because it’s an existential crisis.”

Compounding this anger is the perception that Mr. Netanyahu is providing Mr. Musk with political cover at a time of rising antisemitism on X.

Antisemitic posts on X, then known as Twitter, rose by more than 100 percent in the months following Mr. Musk’s purchase of the platform in October 2022, according to joint research by two British groups.

Mr. Musk has also set off alarms by threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League, a rights watchdog that has highlighted the rise in antisemitism on X. Mr. Musk blames the group for a large drop in advertising revenue for the site.

Since his $44 billion takeover of X in 2022, Mr. Musk has rolled back content moderation rules and dismissed many employees responsible for enforcing those rules.

Mr. Musk has instead pushed for an anything-goes approach when it comes to the kinds of speech allowed on X and has said that the company was too restrictive under its former management. His stance has spooked major advertisers, who wish to avoid placing their brands next to contentious posts, and many of them halted their advertising campaigns on the platform after Mr. Musk’s takeover.

“The ADL has been trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic,” Mr. Musk wrote in a post earlier this month, referring to the Anti-Defamation League.

He also set off outcries by appearing to call for the prosecution of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who helped lead U.S. efforts to fight the coronavirus; criticizing a disabled employee who had recently been dismissed; and attacking George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who is a frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

American Jewish leaders said they saw both opportunity and risk in Mr. Netanyahu’s visit. Several, including Jonathan Greenblatt, the league’s chief executive, said that Mr. Netanyahu could help persuade Mr. Musk to enact more rigorous measures against antisemitism on the site.

But some also fear that even Mr. Netanyahu will have little impact.

“It’s important for all of us, including the prime minister of the state of Israel, to loudly and clearly express to Elon Musk that what is happening on his platform is outrageous, and it endangers the lives of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest network of Jewish congregations in the United States.

But, he added, “I’m skeptical of such a meeting being able to resolve these issues.”

In Israel, critics also questioned the wisdom of a head of government going out of his way at a busy time to meet with a businessman on his home turf.

Unlike President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who met Mr. Musk on Sunday in New York, Mr. Netanyahu took a 15-hour flight for just 12 hours on the ground in California.

“It is customary for a person, even Elon Musk, to be the one traveling to Israel,” Edna Halbani, a former head of protocol in the prime minister’s office, told an Israeli radio station.

Mr. Netanyahu “is the prime minister, after all,” she added.

Kate Conger contributed reporting from San Francisco, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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