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silicon valley sit-down

Seeking partnership with Musk, Netanyahu treads lightly on antisemitism

Netanyahu to Musk, during Silicon Valley meeting: ‘I hope you find within the confines of the First Amendment to try to roll back’ antisemitism

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Elon Musk and Benjamin Netanyahu

FREMONT, Calif — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a charm offensive to draw Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, to invest in Israel, even as Musk has courted controversy with recent remarks on antisemitism and a threatened lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League.

Musk and Netanyahu broadcast a 45-minute conversation live on X (formerly Twitter) on Monday morning, focused, Netanyahu tweeted, on “how we can harness the opportunities and mitigate the risks of [artificial intelligence] for the good of civilization.” 

Netanyahu and Musk spoke at the Tesla factory in this Bay Area city, in front of a live audience made up almost entirely of members of the prime minister’s delegation at the start of his visit to the U.S., planned around the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Their private and broadcasted meetings came about after Netanyahu and Musk spoke on the phone three times and texted occasionally in recent months, a source in the prime minister’s delegation said.

While Netanyahu is scheduled to speak at the U.N. on Friday and meet with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, members of his delegation indicated that he saw his time in Silicon Valley as the highlight of the trip. 

Though it did not come up in the entire recorded discussion, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said one of Netanyahu’s major goals for the visit was to convince Musk to invest in Israel. The investment would ideally take the form of building a research and development center in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, which has long been seen as an emerging tech hub.

To that end, Netanyahu flew 15 hours from Israel to Silicon Valley to see the Tesla factory for himself, even though — as many on the flight pointed out — Musk was in New York just a day before to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The prime minister opened the conversation by calling Musk “the Edison of our time,” as well as “the Tesla of our time,” a reference to Serbian-American electrical engineer and futurist Nikola Tesla, to which Musk responded by saying he has a long way to go to match the latter inventor.

The meeting came days after Musk faced accusations of amplifying antisemitism on X, which he owns. Earlier this month, Musk accused the Anti-Defamation League and its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt of driving a sharp drop in ad revenue for the social media platform, and claimed that the ADL causes antisemitism by complaining too much about hateful content. Greenblatt told Jewish Insider at the time that Musk was “invoking a classic trope of…blaming the Jews for their misfortune.”

The prime minister segued into the topic of antisemitism from a discussion of the oppressiveness of Iran and other regimes in contrast with the freedoms afforded by the First Amendment. He refrained from criticizing Musk or directly mentioning the ADL.

“I know your commitment to free speech and I know you’re opposed to antisemitism; you’ve spoken about it. I hope you find within the confines of the First Amendment to try to roll [antisemitism] back,” Netanyahu said.

“I know you’re committed to it,” he added. “I hope you succeed. I encourage you to find the balance — it’s a tough one.” 

Musk said that he is “against attacking any group” and wants to “further civilization.”

“I can’t do that if there’s a lot of infighting and hatred and negativity. Obviously I’m against antisemitism. I’m against anti-anything that promotes hate and conflict,” he stated. Still, Musk said, “free speech does at times mean that someone you don’t like is saying something you don’t like. If you don’t have that, it’s not free speech.”

The X owner said that his platform does not amplify hate speech.

Netanyahu seemed unimpressed: “That doesn’t stop you from coming out in every forum, as I do, and condemning antisemitism. I don’t care if it comes from the far left, far right, white supremacists or ultra-progressives…The condemnation is quite separate from the question of source.”

The prime minister then gave Musk a practical suggestion — to try to stop bots that amplify hateful messaging; the entrepreneur said that is why he plans to institute a fee to use X.

Netanyahu’s relatively friendly conversation with Musk about antisemitism on his platform contrasts greatly with the concerns of leading American Jewish organizations, which have expressed alarm about the rising level of anti-Jewish hate on social media.

Netanyahu has often preferred realpolitik considerations of Israel’s needs over the interests of the American Jewish community. He’s allied himself with former President Donald Trump and has continued to cultivate a relationship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

With Israeli expats protesting outside the factory, Musk reluctantly brought up the Israeli government’s controversial judicial reform efforts, saying that he “probably got the most negative pushback at Tesla for this interview than anything I have ever done. Can you take the time to address, I think it’s primarily the judicial reform question?”

In response, Netanyahu compared the power of Israel’s Supreme Court to Plato’s philosopher-king, and said the model is not particularly democratic. The judges have “basically replaced the government,” he lamented.

“I’m still reaching for a consensus,” Netanyahu said of his future plans for judicial reform. “If I can’t do it with the other side of the aisle, I want to do it with the public.”

The prime minister said he wants “a minor change” in the judicial selection process.

Musk asked Netanyahu what it’s like being so heavily criticized, and the prime minister railed against The New York Times as “obsessive”, and added: “It’s not easy to be maligned, you might know something about that.”

“Me, maligned? Never!” Musk responded.

Most of the one-on-one conversation was about AI. A roundtable discussion that took place immediately after, in which MIT professor Max Tegmark and OpenAI President Greg Brockman took part, was dedicated entirely to the subject. 

Israel plans to establish an AI directorate to deal with regulation on the matter. Netanyahu said that he sought out Musk for ideas, because there are no other democratic countries to emulate on the matter.

“What is the model for a democratic country — and I have to say Israel will always be a democratic country — and how does it cooperate with other democratic countries to get a handle on, I don’t want to say this demon,” Netanyahu said, making Musk laugh. “You created a blessing that has a curse attached to it.”

Netanyahu called AI “the stuff of science fiction” and “the single most important development in our lifetime and I think our history. We don’t have much time left to shape the future…not only for my country but for everyone.”

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