Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew overnight to San Francisco to have a public conversation with Elon Musk Monday morning about multiple subjects, including AI, antisemitism on Twitter/X, and the power of courts in a functioning democracy.
On the one hand, Netanyahu's seemingly impromptu 15-hour trip could be cast as a Jewish leader coming to take a social media company leader to task over allowing the proliferation of antisemitism on a major platform — something that Musk has been vehemently denying for months.
But as the New York Times casts it, this is just as much a public-relations move by Netanyahu, who has faced nine months of protests in his country over an effort to overhaul Israel's Supreme Court. And this is also Netanyahu trying to drum up investor interest in Israeli tech businesses — and, per the times, "provides a riposte to claims that his government’s judicial overhaul has put off investors and harmed Israel’s tech sector."
The live discussion broadcast on X began around 9:30 a.m. PT and had the tone of a friendly discussion between two powerful men with mutual admiration for each other, and a shared disdain for the news media and Wikipedia. (There was a tangent in which Netahyahu seemed to diss Wikipedia, to which Musk responded with the line, "They say history is written by the victors, except if the losers are still alive and have the spare time to edit Wikipedia." Netanyahu also said of the media, "They usually get it wrong.")
The prime minister had the opportunity to reframe his overhaul of the judiciary as an effort to "rebalance" the branches of government after years in which the court had too much power. And then, they went on a break before bringing in OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman and MIT professor and AI expert Max Tegmark to have a live panel discussion about artificial intelligence.
The promised "confrontation" about antisemitism on X, was less confrontation and more just bland praise for Musk — Netanyahu simply said that he "admired" Musk's commitment to free speech and said "I also know you're 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, or any collective hatred of a people... I know you're committed to it, and I hope you succeed in it. It's not an easy task."
But even though CNN characterized this as the point of the meeting, that may not actually be the point of the meeting. And on Netanyahu's own X account, above the broadcast video window, he summarized the discussion as being about "how we can harness the opportunities and mitigate the risks of AI for the good of civilization."
Before leaving on his trip, Netanyahu reportedly said of Musk, "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."
The meeting was reportedly arranged Musk's suggestion last week, ahead of Netanyahu's trip to the UN in New York tomorrow.
As Michael J. Koplow, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, points out to the Times, this opportunity works boths ways for Musk and Netanyahu. "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," Koplow says. "As for Musk, he will point to a warm meeting with Netanyahu as a shield against accusations of antisemitism."
In recent weeks, Musk has threatened to sue the Jewish-founded Anti-Defamation League, claiming that they defamed Twitter in their claims about rising hate and antisemitism on the platform, which led to a 60% drop in advertising revenue. Musk claims that the company has ratcheted down the visibility of hate speech on the platform while not outright banning it — a policy he's referred to as "Freedom of Speech, Not Reach."
In a guest essay published in the Times today, former Twitter trust and safety lead Yoel Roth recounts how both former President Donald Trump and Elon Musk encouraged online mobs to target him and his family offline, after revealing him to be a key player in content-moderation policies surrounding the 2020 election.
"From pushing the Twitter Files to tweeting baseless conspiracies about former employees, Mr. Musk’s actions have normalized and popularized vigilante accountability, and made ordinary employees of his company into even greater targets," Roth writes. "His recent targeting of the Anti-Defamation League has shown that he views personal retaliation as an appropriate consequence for any criticism of him or his business interests."
Maybe the most disturbing part of the one-on-one with Musk and Netanyahu came when Netanyahu was trying to ask a hypothetical question from the perspective of a world leader, and said to Musk, "Well, you can't be elected president, last I checked," and Musk responds smugly, "Not officially." Netanyahu goes on to chuckle and address him as an "unofficial" leader of our country.