What happens when one of the most powerful men in the world meets one of the most important leaders in the world at a time where both have major detractors?
Anyone hoping for fireworks between Elon Musk, who owns Twitter (now called X or X Corp), and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in northern California were disappointed.
Netanyahu kicked off his trip to the U.S. – where he will address the U.N. General Assembly later this week – by visiting a Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., on Monday for a tour of the factory and then a meeting between the two men.
During a 45-minute, live-streamed one-on-one discussion, Netanyahu and Musk discussed antisemitism (especially as it appears on X), judicial reform, artificial intelligence, Iran, and potentially charging X users a fee to use the platform.
There was no viral moment in the event, as neither took the other to task on any issue. Musk, who is not Jewish, said he could sing a pretty good “Hava Nagila” but did not.
After Musk said that it is difficult to have democracy without free speech, Netanyahu echoed that sentiment and said he is aware of Musk’s opposition to antisemitism and “all I can say is I hope you find within the confines of the first amendment, the ability to stop not only antisemitism or roll it back as best you can, but any collective hatred of a people that you know that antisemitism represents, and I know you’re committed to that. I hope you succeed in it. It’s not an easy task….”
The meetings come as both men have been widely criticized. Musk has threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, saying that X has lost advertisers due to pressure from ADL. While the ADL has received criticism from within the Jewish community from those who say it unfairly criticizes the right and not the left or should not have ultimate power in saying what is or is not antisemitic, nonetheless most view Musk’s action of putting up a poll to ask platform users if X should ban the ADL as both antithetical to his stated beliefs and potentially dangerous to Jews during a time of rising antisemitism. Musk has said the ADL has wrongly accused him of antisemitism.
While there was antisemitism on Twitter prior to Musk taking over, analysts say the volume has increased since his takeover.
Netanyahu made no mention of the ADL. In May, Musk drew criticism for comparing Jewish billionaire George Soros to the X-Men villain Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, and Musk claimed that Soros hates humanity and “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization.” Some see attacks against Soros as antisemitic and scapegoating him as a sort of bogeyman for the ills off the world, while others believe it is fair to criticize Soros, who happens to be Jewish, but funds causes that they believe are harmful to America and Israel.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, has said Musk’s comments “will embolden extremists.”
“Obviously I’m against antisemitism” Musk told Netanyahu, adding that he’s against anything that promotes hate and conflict.
It is thought that algorithms prevent certain hateful posts, yet Musk said antisemitism can’t be policed beforehand but can be amplified. Musk threw Kanye West, now called Ye, off Twitter for antisemitic posts but has reinstated him.
Netanyahu has seen unprecedented protests, in massive numbers, including from members of the Army, against his party’s judicial reform. While his defenders see a reform of the Supreme Court as necessary, the many who have protested believe that his actions are an abuse of power that threaten the democracy of Israel. The Israeli Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments regarding the Knesset’s 64-0 vote in July, passing a law to curb the court’s ability to strike down government decisions.
Musk told Netanyahu that he got more negative pushback from his Tesla staff for meeting Netanyahu than anything else and asked him about judicial reform.
Netanyahu said the New York Times has gotten the issue wrong and some protestors don’t know what they are protesting. He conceded that the initial reform that was proposed was “bad” and would have swung the pendulum too far in favor of the Knesset. He said in America, politicians select Supreme Court justices while that is not the case in Israel.
“Israel was and will always be a robust democracy,” Netanyahu told Musk.
He also said Israel has “the most activist judicial court on the planet” and he is looking for some “happy middle” where there needs to be “some correction on how we choose judges.” Netanyahu also said “big money” and “big data” have contributed to the mass protests in Israel.
He added that Israel will be a “stronger democracy after the dust settles.”
The meeting could serve both well. To those in high-tech who are protesting and threatening to leave Israel, Netanyahu can say he met with the world king of hi-tech. To those who may accuse Musk of antisemitism, he can say he met with the top Jewish leader in the world.
A bulk of the conversation was about Artificial Intelligence, which Netanyahu called a blessing and a curse. He said separate from the issue of access; antisemitism should be condemned. Netanyahu expressed concern regarding the ability of hate to be spread by “bots,” or programs run by one person that can appear to be thousands of different people online.
Musk said a small fee for all X users is “the only defense against an army of bots,” reasoning that scammers will not be able to afford to do it and it would anyway require a new form of payment for each bot.
Netanyahu said that while he’s reformed the Israeli economy, and that Israel leads the way in cybersecurity, he said he needs to learn about A.I. He asked Musk if a rogue person or bad actor would be able to use A.I. in a major attack and Musk said they would be able to detect such activity via satellite, but the goal is that countries have some kind of treaty or agreement for major countries.
Musk commented that after using Starlink over Iran, the Iranian government sent him a letter of protest that was polite. Netanyahu countered that Iran tried to kill the American Secretary of State, referring to Mike Pompeo, so it should not placate him that a letter was polite.
Netanyahu also said he was most influenced by his father who taught him that a leader who doesn’t focus on being educated will be controlled by clerks.
In a brief comedic moment, Musk said that “reading has taken somewhat of a hit,” while Netanyahu countered that it may be the case because people are reading tweets.
In October 2022 Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion. He told Netanyahu his main goal with the platform is to “maximize unregretted user time.”
Netanyahu said he wants Israel to use A.I. to help the world. Musk warned that while he does not want to be a “scaremonger,” A.I. is “potentially the greatest threat to civilization.”