Benjamin Netanyahu and Elon Musk Meet in California

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 has been accused, among other things, of tolerating and even encouraging a surge of antisemitic abuse on X.

On Monday morning, the two men sought to find a respite from those furors — in each other’s company.

Mr. Netanyahu, beginning a weeklong trip to the United States, took a 15-hour overnight flight to California, where the men met at a factory for Tesla, Mr. Musk’s electric car company, and broadcast an unusual, hourlong conversation live on X that allowed them to deflect from their respective crises.

The discussion was jocular, if disjointed. At some points the two men were expressing mutual admiration, at others they were delving into the perils and opportunities of artificial intelligence.

The conversation also allowed Mr. Musk to defend against accusations of antisemitism, and Mr. Netanyahu to give a positive spin to his judicial overhaul, which critics say has undermined Israel’s democracy by reducing oversight over the government.

“Balance between the three branches of government — that’s what I’m trying to achieve, nothing more,” Mr. Netanyahu said. Turning to Mr. Musk, he added, “It’s not an easy thing to be maligned — I know you’ve never seen that, right?”

“Me, maligned?” Mr. Musk said, laughing. “Never.”

For Mr. Netanyahu, an encounter with the world’s richest man — partly to promote tech investment in Israel — allowed him to dismiss claims that his judicial overhaul had put off investors and harmed Israel’s start-up ecosystem.

“I have helped reform the Israeli economy from a semi-socialist economy to one of the most vibrant, free-market economies,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

For Mr. Musk, the meeting with the leader of the world’s only Jewish state gave 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.

“Obviously I’m against antisemitism — I’m against anti-anything,” Mr. Musk said. “And I’m in favor of that which helps uphold society and takes us to a better future for humanity.”

Still, the Israeli prime minister did use the opportunity to press the X owner on the matter of hate posts.

“I hope you can find, within the confines of the First Amendment, the ability to not only stop antisemitism as best you can, but any collective hatred of the people that antisemitism represents,” Mr. Netanyahu said,

Afterward, Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, expressed appreciation to Mr. Netanyahu for raising the issue.

“We hope that Mr. Musk takes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concerns seriously so that X/Twitter can become a safer and more welcome place for all,” he said.

At the venue where the men met, the subdued audience — composed mainly of senior Israeli officials — was twice chastised by Mr. Musk for failing to laugh at his jokes. “Bit of a dry house we’ve got here,” he said.

The response from outside the get-together was more critical: Mr. Netanyahu was accused of providing Mr. Musk with political cover at a time of rising antisemitism on his platform.

Antisemitic posts on X, then known as Twitter, rose by more than 100 percent in the months after Mr. Musk purchased it 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, the rights group that has highlighted the rise in antisemitism on X, and attacking George Soros, a frequent target of antisemitic abuse.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to meet Mr. Musk served “at the very least to legitimize inaction,” Yizhar Hess, a vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a nongovernmental group, said in a statement.

“Choosing to pal around with Elon Musk at a time when antisemitism runs rampant on X not only sends the wrong message to Jews around the world, but puts them at risk,” Mr. Hess said.

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 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.

His visit to the United States comes against a backdrop of unrest in Israel over Mr. Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the judiciary.

Mr. Netanyahu says his goal is to strengthen democracy by giving elected lawmakers greater autonomy from unelected judges. Critics say his plan will not only undermine the rule of law but also 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.

When Mr. Netanyahu arrived in California at dawn on Monday, more than 200 demonstrators were already lining the route of his convoy.

“A. I.?” read one protester’s placard. “How about some emotional intelligence?”

Another sign said: “Make Bibi an X prime minister.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr. Musk, critics said, will do little help to Israel’s economy.

“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 organized protests this week in the Bay Area. “To get investments like we did, we need the prime minister to stop the judicial coup.”

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. He has instead pushed for an anything-goes approach when it comes to the kinds of speech allowed on X.

Mr. Musk has said the company was too restrictive under its former management, but his stance has spooked major advertisers, which worry about tying their brands to contentious posts.

“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.

Some Jewish leaders predicted little would come from the meeting.

“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.

But, he said, “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 his long 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 noted.

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

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Source of data and images: nytimes

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