Starting his visit to the US, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday held a live discussion with tech CEO Elon Musk at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, touching on a range of issues including antisemitism on social media and its implications for freedom of speech, the Iranian threat, the consequences of artificial intelligence, and his coalition’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation.
Netanyahu said he hoped Musk would prove able to “roll back” antisemitism on his social media platform X, formerly Twitter. Musk said he planned to introduce “lower tier pricing,” charging all users “a small amount of money,” as the only effective way to counter bots abusing the platform.
Netanyahu’s high-profile and controversial meeting with Musk in the San Francisco Bay Area comes at a time when the entrepreneur billionaire is facing accusations of tolerating antisemitic messages on his social media platform, and while Netanyahu is confronting intense political opposition at home and abroad, mainly focused on the overhaul proposals. Protesters gathered early Monday outside the Tesla factory to demonstrate against the prime minister’s visit.
Netanyahu and Musk briefly held a private meeting before beginning their live discussion shortly before 9:30 a.m.
A biblical threat?
The two kicked off with a joke about deepfakes and quickly launched into a discussion on artificial intelligence as both a blessing and a curse for humanity.
Netanyahu said an important question about more advanced AI was: “How do you get the international regime to control this thing?”
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) September 18, 2023
Musk answered that it was crucial to bring like-minded states together to agree to a code of ethics and code of conduct to foster the benefits and “curb the curses” but said there will still be a need to “police the planet” against rogue actors.
The billionaire labeled AI “potentially the greatest civilizational threat,” and expressed doubt about who would be in charge — “the computers or the humans.”
“We just want to make sure that we’re guiding things toward a positive future and not a negative one,” said Musk.
Netanyahu then took the conversation to the Bible, stating humanity will have to choose between a blessing and a curse like the biblical Israelites were told to do by Moses. So too with AI, he said. Netanyahu discussed the potential for the end of scarcity because of AI, but also the potential for the end of democracy and for AI-driven wars.
“We want to increase the blessings not only for ourselves but for all of humanity,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s AI vision.
The tech CEO said that a leading concern was what China will accomplish with AI, and what AI will do with China. “That [future] digital superintelligence could be in charge of China, not the CCP,” said Musk, referring to the country’s ruling party.
Netanyahu asked what kind of international oversights and agreements were possible around AI. He proposed nuclear weapons deterrence as a model that could work to keep anti-democratic states from violating the rules. “Instead of Mutually Assured Destruction, we’d have Mutually Assured Chaos.”
He also expressed concerns about rogue individual and non-state actors. “What do we do about the bad actors?” Netanyahu mused. “Could we police the planet against the rogue actors?”
Later on, the two were joined on stage by Greg Brockman, founder of the artificial intelligence research firm OpenAI, as the conversation continued.
‘A bad actor’
Netanyahu briefly took the conversation with Musk to Israel’s regional rival Iran, saying, “It’s a bad actor that chants, ‘Death to Israel,’ ‘Death to America.’ You don’t want them to have the ability to reach Fremont or Dallas.”
Musk recalled a very polite letter he had received from Iranian officials to complain about Musk’s Starlink satellite network, joking he was surprised it did not have “Death to America and Israel” written on it, leading Netanyahu to exhort him not to be “calmed” by the letter’s tone.
“These regimes are based on the ability to control the minds of their people,” Netanyahu said, adding that AI could help citizens get around regime restrictions.
‘Freedom of speech, not freedom of reach’
The freestyle conversation, which included jokes from both men, soon turned to free speech and antisemitism, with Netanyahu telling Musk he hoped that within the confines of the First Amendment, he could find a way to clamp down on antisemitism and other forms of hatred on his social media platform.
Unprompted, Netanyahu praised what he said was Musk’s outspokenness about antisemitism, saying “I know you are committed to that” and that “you’ve spoken about it, you’ve tweeted about it.” He added that AI could help fight hatred of Jews.
Musk is facing accusations of tolerating antisemitic messages on his social media platform. The Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish civil rights organization, has accused Musk of allowing antisemitism and hate speech to spread on X. Its director, Jonathan Greenblatt, said Musk had “amplified” the messages of neo-Nazis and white supremacists who want to ban the league by engaging with them recently on X.
The prime minister expressed hope Musk would be able to help, if not to stop antisemitism and any “collective hatred of a people” on social media, then to at least “roll it back as best you can… I hope you succeed… It’s not an easy task.”
“I encourage you and urge you to find the balance. It’s a tough one,” Netanyahu said.
Musk said that with 100 million to 200 million posts on X in a day, “some of those are gonna be bad.” He then reiterated the platform’s policy to not promote or amplify hate speech. Under Musk, the former Twitter changed its rules so that objectionable posts are not usually removed, but instead, their visibility is limited so people have to seek them out if they want to see them. Musk calls this “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach.”
“I am against attacking any group,” Musk told Netanyahu, adding that he is in favor of that which advances civilization, and enables it to understand the nature of the universe. “We can’t do that if there’s a lot of infighting, hatred… Obviously, I’m against antisemitism, I’m against anything that promotes hate and conflict.”
“Everyone should have this view,” he continued. “All it takes is long-term thinking.”
Musk then added, however, that “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. That doesn’t mean some sort of negativity should be pushed on people.” Talking about free speech on his platform, he said that if the platform is too “unpleasant,” people will not use it. “We want to maximize unregretted user time,” he explained, saying he wants users to learn and laugh while they use it.
Netanyahu said he does not care where antisemitism comes from, hard right or hard left, but it must be condemned: it’s “collective hatred of a people”; it’s saying “they have to be banished, they don’t have a right to exist, they don’t have a right to a state of their own.”
He noted that “condemnation is separate from the question of access.”
The prime minister pointed to the need to prevent bots from amplifying hatred, which Musk agreed with heartily. The billionaire said he was looking at implementing a small monthly payment to combat the use of bots, apparently meaning one that would apply to all users. He stated he would come out with a “lower tier pricing” than the current premium plan — “a small amount of money” — claiming it is the only way to combat bots.
In a September 4 post, Musk claimed that the ADL was “trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic.” In other posts, he said the league was responsible for a 60 percent drop in revenue at X.
The group met this month with X’s chief executive, Linda Yaccarino. Both Musk and Yaccarino have recently posted messages saying they oppose antisemitism.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt issued a statement after the event, thanking Netanyahu for raising concerns about the proliferation of antisemitism on X/Twitter during his conversation with Musk.”
“We hope that Mr. Musk takes PM Netanyahu’s concerns seriously so that X/Twitter can become a safer and more welcome place for all,” Greenblatt added.
Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO Amy Spitalnick was far more critical of Netanyahu, accusing the prime minister of “giving cover to one of the most prominent antisemites right now in the country.”
“By sitting next to him and fawning over him in the way that he did while declining meeting requests with Jewish leaders, while smearing the Jewish protesters in Israel in the United States as comparable to Iran, it’s sending a very clear message about who he values and who he doesn’t.
“It basically sends a message that the vile direct antisemitism Musk has engaged in — in particular over the last few weeks — is permissible and is endorsed by the leader of the Jewish state. That is incredibly dangerous to Jews and to so many others who are in the crossfire of the conspiracy theories Musk is helping normalize,” she said.
A day before the sit-down with Netanyahu, Musk tweeted that the organization of George Soros — a Jewish billionaire and philanthropist to progressive causes who features in many right-wing conspiracy theories — “appears to want nothing less than the destruction of western civilization.”
Spitalnick said the tweet espoused support for the “great replacement theory,” an anti-immigration philosophy that has united white supremacists across borders in their hatred of Jews and immigrants and has inspired multiple mass murders, including of Jews.
“This conspiracy theory has fueled the murders of Jews, Black people, Latino people, Muslims and so many others, including the Pittsburgh (synagogue) and Poway (Chabad) shootings,” Spitalnick said.
Original overhaul plans a ‘mistake’
Musk also asked Netanyahu about the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation roiling Israel, noting the protests outside and saying, “To be frank, I’ve probably got the most amount of negative pushback from people at Tesla about this interview than anything else I’ve ever done.”
Netanyahu defended his legislation, claiming that 30 years ago, the balance in Israel between the three branches of governance “began to change. And we have the most activist judicial court on the planet… Democracy is supposed to be checks and balances of the three branches on each other. In Israel, the judiciary has no checks and no balances. It just has power.”
“So there is a request to try to bring it back into line and that has been sort of boiling all the time.”
However, the prime minister for the first time rejected initial plans unveiled in January by Justice Minister Yariv Levin as being “bad” and a “mistake.”
That proposal was “creating another imbalance,” Netanyahu said, adding he was looking to forge a consensus with the opposition. He stressed, however, that he intends to remake the way Israel chooses its judges, calling this a “minor correction.”
Protests against the overhaul have raged for 37 straight weeks in Israel. Critics of the coalition’s plans say the legislative package will fundamentally alter Israel’s democratic system by stripping the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the governing coalition.