Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Elon Musk, owner of X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter, have both been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism for most of the year.
Mr. Netanyahu has been the target of a nine-month wave of massive protests against his deeply controversial efforts to curb the power of Israel’s Supreme Court. Mr. Musk has been accused, among other things, of tolerating and even encouraging a wave of anti-Semitic abuse against X.
On Monday morning, the two men sought to find respite from these furies – in each other’s company.
Mr Netanyahu, who begins a week-long trip to the United States, took a 15-hour overnight flight to California, where the men met at the headquarters of Tesla, Mr Musk’s electric car company , and broadcast an unusual hour-long conversation live on X. this allowed them to distract themselves from their respective crises.
The discussion was pleasant, if disjointed. At times, the two men expressed mutual admiration, at others, they reflected on the perils and opportunities of artificial intelligence.
The conversation also allowed Mr. Musk to defend himself against accusations of anti-Semitism and Mr. Netanyahu to put a positive spin on his judicial overhaul, which critics say has undermined Israeli democracy by reducing government oversight .
“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 slandered – I know you’ve never seen that, have you?
“Me, slandered?” Mr. Musk said with a laugh. “Never.”
For Mr Netanyahu, a meeting with the world’s richest man – in part to promote technology investment in Israel – allowed him to reject claims that his judicial overhaul had deterred investors and damaged the ecosystem Israeli start-ups.
“I helped reform the Israeli economy from a semi-socialist economy to one of the most dynamic market economies,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
For Mr. Musk, meeting with the leader of the world’s only Jewish state gave him an opportunity to deflect a barrage of criticism from American Jews who say he allowed X to become a vessel for anti-Semitic hate .
“I’m obviously against anti-Semitism, I’m against everything,” Mr. Musk said. “And I am in favor of what helps sustain society and moves us toward a better future for humanity.”
However, the Israeli Prime Minister took the opportunity to pressure the owner of X over the hateful messages.
“I hope you can find, within the confines of the First Amendment, the ability to not only end anti-Semitism as best you can, but also any collective hatred of the people that anti-Semitism represents,” he said. Mr. Netanyahu:
Subsequently, Jonathan Greenblatt, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, thanked Mr. Netanyahu for raising this issue.
“We hope that Mr. Musk will take Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concerns seriously so that X/Twitter can become a safer and more welcoming place for all,” he said.
At the venue where the men met, the quiet audience – made up mainly of senior Israeli officials – was twice reprimanded by Mr Musk for not laughing at his jokes. “We have a somewhat dry house here,” he said.
The response from outside the meeting was more critical: Mr. Netanyahu was accused of providing political cover for Mr. Musk at a time when anti-Semitism was rising on his agenda.
Anti-Semitic posts on X, then known as Twitter, increased by more than 100% in the months after it was purchased by Mr Musk in October 2022, according to a joint study by two British groups.
Mr. Musk also sounded the alarm by threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League, the rights group that has highlighted rising anti-Semitism on X, and by attacking George Soros , a frequent target of anti-Semitic abuse.
Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to meet with Mr. Musk served “at the very least to legitimize inaction,” Yizhar Hess, vice president of the World Zionist Organization, a nongovernmental group, said in a statement.
“Choosing to sympathize with Elon Musk at a time when anti-Semitism is rampant on X not only sends the wrong message to Jews around the world, it puts them in danger,” 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 depart Monday evening on another overnight flight, bound for New York, where he is expected to meet President Biden and deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly later in the week.
His visit to the United States comes amid unrest in Israel following Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the justice system.
Mr. Netanyahu says his goal is to strengthen democracy by giving elected lawmakers greater autonomy over unelected judges. Critics say his plan will not only undermine the rule of law, but also make Israel a riskier place to do business.
Israeli economists, senior bankers and business leaders, including tech entrepreneurs who helped turn Israel into a cyber superpower, said the overhaul, which has not yet been fully adopted, would harm the Israeli economy.
“Save our startup nation” has been a common slogan during anti-government protests this year.
When Mr. Netanyahu arrived in California at dawn on Monday, more than 200 demonstrators already lined the route of his convoy.
“AI?” ” read one protester’s sign. “How about a little emotional intelligence?”
Another sign read: “Make Bibi Prime Minister X.”
Critics say Mr Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr Musk will do little for the Israeli economy.
“The stock market is going in the wrong direction, the investments are not coming in,” said Offir Gutelzon, an Israeli technology entrepreneur based in Palo Alto, California, who organized protests this week in the Bay Area. “To get investment like we did, we need the prime minister to stop the judicial coup. »
Since his $44 billion buyout of X in 2022, Mr. Musk has rolled back content moderation rules and fired many employees responsible for enforcing those rules. Instead, he advocated an “anything goes” approach when it came to the types of speech permitted on X.
Mr. Musk has said the company was too restrictive under his former leadership, but his stance has spooked major advertisers, who fear linking their brands to controversial posts.
“The ADL tried to kill this platform by falsely accusing it and me of being anti-Semitic,” Mr. Musk wrote in a statement. job earlier this month, referring to the Anti-Defamation League.
Some Jewish leaders predicted that the meeting would achieve little.
“It is important for all of us, including the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, to express loud and clear to Elon Musk that what is happening on his agenda is scandalous and endangers the lives of the Jewish people” , said Rabbi Rick. Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
But, he said, “I am skeptical that such a meeting will resolve these issues.”
In Israel, critics have also questioned the wisdom of a government leader going out of his way, at a busy time, to meet with a businessman at his home.
Unlike Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met with 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 who travels to Israel,” Edna Halbani, a former protocol official 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.