As Netanyahu defends overhaul, Musk cites ‘negative pushback’ at Tesla for speaking with him

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Elon Musk and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak during a live discussion on the social media platform X, at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, September 18, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Elon Musk and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak during a live discussion on the social media platform X, at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, September 18, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Elon Musk asks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the judicial overhaul roiling Israel, noting the protests outside and saying that, due to his decision to speak with the premier on X, “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, in response, says many of the people protesting don’t know what the overhaul is about.

“Israel was, is and will always be a robust democracy,” Netanyahu says.

“It’s we the people, not we the elites,” he continues. “We the people rule.”

Thirty years ago, he says, 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.”

Referring to the initial package of far-reaching proposals put forward for weakening the courts, apparently the one unveiled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin days after his coalition took office, Netanyahu says, “I thought [it] was bad.” It would “reject one imbalance by creating another imbalance. If the court can rule against any decision made by the government or the parliament, then let’s not correct it by having the parliament reject any decision, with a simple majority, that the court makes.”

“I thought that was a mistake. It was moving the pendulum from one side to the other side,” he continues. Netanyahu stresses he is looking to find “a happy middle.”

“I have a majority in the parliament, in the Knesset to legislate anything, but I didn’t. I held back because I want this to be a consensus.”

He says “we made the minimal changes that would bring back a little of the balance that we had in Isrel’s first 50 years. And that’s what we’re trying to do now.”

Netanyahu also says he is looking to forge consensus with the opposition, but if not, “then I want to do it with the public. — that is to have as broad a consensus for a minor correction, basically some correction on how we choose judges, because otherwise.. we have.. in many ways 15 unelected officials. By the way, gifted people.. but they replace the government. They’re sort of unelected, and they decide everything. That’s not exactly democracy.”

He says he’s unfairly described as something between Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. “It’s not an easy thing to be maligned.”

The premier says that when he gets back to Israel, he will be focused on finding consensus for the judicial reform.

“Certainly, the press in the US has not portrayed the reforms you mentioned in a positive light,” responds Musk, before Netanyahu gripes about The New York Times’ coverage — a “fantastic, obsessive campaign” against the overhaul. “But they usually get it wrong, so it’s not important.”

Israel, says Netanyahu, will “be a stronger democracy after the dust settles.”

The two go on to lament the falloff in the reading of books. “Who reads today?” asks Netanyahu. “That’s because people read twits, tweets,” he says, hurriedly correcting himself. “That’s what they do.”

Says Musk: “They watch TikTok videos.”

They then discuss Musk having read almost the entire encyclopedia, and move from there to the merits, or otherwise, of Wikipedia.

Musk cites the “old saying that history is written by the victors… Yes, but not if your enemies are still alive, have a lot of time on their hands, and can edit Wikipedia.”

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