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1. What Bibi Did (and Didn’t) Tell Elon
Late Sunday night, only a few hours after Rosh Hashanah ended, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarked on his much-awaited trip to the United States.
Like everything else in the current Netanyahu government, this American journey is like none other, and controversy is expected to erupt at every turn.
His first stop, today in San Francisco, has been dedicated to meeting tech leaders to discuss investments and the future of artificial intelligence. Netanyahu’s most noticeable meeting during his quick Silicon Valley stop? It was with Elon Musk, the owner of X (formerly known as Twitter) who recently embarked on a crusade against the Anti-Defamation League, the largest Jewish group fighting antisemitism.
As expected, the meeting has drawn a lot of attention, and not of the positive kind.
Prior to his departure, Netanyahu characterized Musk as, “the person who is paving the way that will change the face of humanity and the face of the State of Israel.” Netanyahu neglected to make any mention of the accusations that ever since Musk took over Twitter and lifted many of the restrictions on hate speech that were previously in place, the platform has become rampant with antisemites and racists spreading hate.
Musk, by the way, did think it was important to mention this issue after the meeting was announced. “This discussion was planned several weeks ago and is about AI, not the Defamation League (they dropped the ‘A’).” And no, this is not a typo. Elon Musk now intentionally refers to the Anti-Defamation League as the “Defamation League.”
In the first part of today’s X chat, Musk and Netanyahu discussed AI and its future, with Netanyahu using a biblical allusion in calling AI “a blessing and a curse.” He also compared the danger of not policing AI to the danger of not policing nuclear weapons in Iran.
Despite being billed as a forum where antisemitism would be discussed, the two didn’t linger on the topic. Netanyahu told Musk: “I know you’re committed” to fighting antisemitism. Musk responded: “I’m against antisemitism. I’m against anything that promotes hate and conflict. Everyone should have this view.” Musk added that he is for free speech, and said X does not amplify hate speech. Musk then asked Netanyahu about the protests happening outside their meeting over the judicial reforms in Israel. Netanyahu said the protestors don’t even know what they are protesting about and stressed that he is just looking for a way to make Israel more democratic by putting some speed bumps on judicial activism and balancing power between the branches of government. Toward the end of their one-on-one discussion, Netanyahu’s final question—rather than anything about the ADL—was a softball about who had most influenced Musk. Musk’s answer? Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In closing, Musk revealed he went to Hebrew preschool and knows how to sing the “Havah Nagila.”
Did Netanyahu ask Musk to reinstate rules that kept purveyors of hate off the platform? Not specifically. Will the official readout coming out of the prime minister’s office mention the issue, and will their discussion assuage concerns of American Jews regarding the rationale of holding a high-profile meeting with Musk? It’s certainly possible their cozy chat will only deepen the wedge between the American Jewish community and Netanyahu.
2. What Will Biden Say to Bibi?
The highlight of Netanyahu’s week-long trip will be his meeting with President Biden on Wednesday, in New York.
A lot has been said about the optics of the meeting: Instead of a formal invitation to the White House, where leaders are greeted with a saluting Marine as they enter the building, before sitting down for the traditional photo-op on the iconic Oval Office seats, Netanyahu will get a businesslike meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The substance will likely be the same but will lack the visuals that Netanyahu, like every world leader, badly wants and needs.
But what about the substance?
Topping the agenda, as always, is the issue of Iran. Netanyahu arrives with a strong new argument, courtesy of the Iranian regime. Tehran’s decision to kick out a third of the International Atomic Energy inspectors provides the Israeli leader with the proof he needs to show Biden that the Iranians cannot be trusted. This, as America is about to finalize a prisoner swap deal and is looking for ways to forge a workable non-agreement with the Ayatollahs, could be seen as a potential win for Netanyahu.
Then there’s the Saudi issue—that elusive four-party deal that Biden is trying to finalize, whereby Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Israel, Israel makes concessions on the Palestinian front, and the United States provides Saudi Arabia with defense assurances, access to top-of-the-line weapons, and a civilian nuclear program. Expect Biden to make it clear to Netanyahu that the deal hinges on the Palestinian question: Can Netanyahu agree to measures that will improve the lives of Palestinians and keep the two-state solution alive? One wonders if his coalition can survive, if he does agree.
And then there’s the elephant in the room—the future of Israel’s democracy.
This will be Biden’s first chance to tell Netanyahu face to face that he fears judicial overhaul moves advocated by the Israeli government would be detrimental to American-Israeli “shared values.” This is a nice way of saying: Hey, if you guys are shifting away from democracy, I won’t be able to sell the cause of Israel to the American people.
Here’s what we will be watching: Does Biden mention judicial reform in comments to the media? How prominent a role does the issue play in White House briefings, both on and off the record? And most important—will Biden present Netanyahu with a roadmap for de-escalation, or insist that it is not for America to delve into the details of Israel’s internal domestic debate?
3. Can Netanyahu Spin an Underwhelming Visit?
The Israeli leader is facing some tough headwinds in his American visit. Protestors will follow him around, the media is highlighting Netanyahu’s troubles back home (a 60-Minutes segment on the eve of his visit was dedicated to the anti-Netanyahu protest movement in Israel) and the no-frills meeting with Biden will also be seen as a snub.
Netanyahu’s campaign message in recent election cycles (Israel has had many of them in the past four years) has always been based on the premise that he is the only world-class statesman in the race, and he will do his best to maintain this image during the visit. It’s not easy with the shouts of protestors getting equal attention to his speech, and with Biden not playing along, but Netanyahu can still win the day.
He will try to ignore the noise and convince Israelis to focus on the substance: Did he deliver a strong message on Iran? Was he able to advance a Saudi normalization deal? Did he succeed in conveying the message that what is preventing peace in the Middle East is Palestinian corruption and lack of governance and not Israeli occupation and settlement expansion?
It won’t be easy, but at the end of the day, Netanyahu will be standing at the United Nations podium, his speech carried live for all Israelis to watch, and that could, possibly, be enough for him to make the case that whether you like him or not, he’s still Israel’s world-class statesman.
4. Will Protests Overshadow Bibi’s Trip?
What started off back in January as a few scattered groups of expat Israelis getting together on weekends to protest in Washington Square in New York City, on Capitol Hill in DC and in San Francisco, has evolved into an energetic, well-organized and highly motivated protest movement that is now gearing up for its biggest challenge.
Members of the anti-judicial reform movement in the United States (organized under the unappealing name UnXeptable) plan to be out in the streets at every turn of Netanyahu’s visit. They will also stake out hotels housing other Israeli cabinet ministers visiting New York this week.
Netanyahu, most likely, will not encounter the protestors. Traveling in a secured motorcade and having a massive security perimeter outside his hotel, their chants will not reach his ears. But the hundreds or thousands of protestors will be seen and heard by the media, which has already been turning its attention to the unprecedented phenomenon of Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans taking to the streets to speak out against the Israeli prime minister and urging their government and the international community to boycott him.
Netanyahu’s main concern is with his audience back at home. The key to framing his trip as a diplomatic success is to focus on the substance of his talks, not on the protests outside.
Protesters in Israel have shown Netanyahu in the past nine months that this is impossible. The agenda is set by the masses in the streets, not by members of the cabinet and elected officials. Now, critics of the Israeli government will try to do the same on American soil.
5. Will American Jews Come Out?
While the movement is led by Israeli expats living in the United States, it has gradually gained traction with an increasing number of American Jews. Liberal organizations, such as J Street, Ameinu and many others, have joined forces with the protesters, as have leading rabbinical figures and synagogues.
Israeli-Americans are bringing the energy fueling these protests, but for the movement to really take off, it will need large numbers. And this is something only American Jews can supply.
This week will serve as the first test: How many American Jews are willing to actively join the process?
Top Image: Steve Jurvetson (CC BY 2.0) / Utenriksdepartementet UD (CC BY-ND 2.0) / Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Joe Shlabotnik ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)