Israeli PM Netanyahu Faces Protests During US Visit Focused on Tech and Diplomacy

The prime minister discusses AI and antisemitism with Elon Musk ahead of the UN General Assembly and meetings with President Biden and other world leaders in New York, all while trying to drown out the sound of protesters on both coasts

By Clint Van Winkle/The Media Line

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found protesters on both ends of his 15-hour nonstop flight from Israel to California. The prime minister, who is slated to be in the US until Friday, is in California ahead of his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York. It is his first trip to the US since being reelected prime minister, and he has a full schedule that includes meetings with numerous heads of state and government.

“Netanyahu’s primary focus during this trip should be strengthening the relationship between the United States’ and Israel’s technology industries,” EJ Kimball, director of policy and strategic operations at the US-Israel Education Association, told The Media Line.

With tech in mind, Silicon Valley was Netanyahu’s first US stop, where he met with tech magnate and Tesla CEO Elon Musk Monday to discuss artificial intelligence (AI), among other topics.

“Israel needs to be a leader in artificial intelligence. Just as we turned it into a leader in cyber, so we will do in this field as well,” Netanyahu told reporters.

An Israeli activist group called UnXeptable greeted the prime minister at Tesla’s entrance. According to its website, UnXeptable “is a grassroots movement launched by Israel expats in support of a democratic Israel. We call on world Jewry to come together and preserve the democratic identity of Israel as the home of all Jewish people.”

The group’s California day of action against Netanyahu, the largest event it has hosted on the US West Coast, included local rabbis as well as senior leadership from the Jewish Community Relations Councils of the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

The protesters, who were waving Israeli flags and holding signs, did not go unnoticed. Musk used their presence to launch into the subject of judicial reforms during the X/Twitter livestream.

“To be frank, I probably got the most amount of negative pushback from people at Tesla about this interview than anything else I’ve ever done. … I think it is primarily the judicial reform question,” Musk said to Netanyahu during their interview.

Although Netanyahu was at the Tesla factory to discuss AI with Musk, the two also addressed antisemitism.

Musk has been accused of allowing, even promoting, antisemitic content on X/Twitter since his takeover of the social media platform earlier this year. Netanyahu addressed this issue with Musk but made clear he did not personally believe Musk was antisemitic.

“I also know your opposition to antisemitism; you have spoken about it, tweeted about it,” Netanyahu said to Musk. “And all I can say is that 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, but any collective hatred of a people that antisemitism represents. And I know you are committed to that. I hope you succeed in it,” Netanyahu continued.

“Obviously I am against antisemitism, I am against anti, really anything that promotes hate and conflict,” Musk responded.

Netanyahu will be in New York for the remainder of the week to meet with world leaders before his return to Israel. He told reporters that in addition to his long-awaited meeting with US President Joe Biden, he also had formal meetings planned with the German chancellor, the presidents of Ukraine and Turkey, and many additional leaders from Asia, Europe and Africa.

The White House, which hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog this past July, has yet to extend a formal White House invitation to Netanyahu. While this has been a point of contention, the two leaders will be focused on common-ground issues like regional security and the Iranian threat.

“Even though a formal meeting at the White House is not taking place, the two friends are mutually supporting each other’s nations in strategic ways,” Kimball said. “This will have no negative impact on US-Israel relations,” Kimball continued.

On Friday, the White House officially announced that the two leaders would meet for the first time since Netanyahu regained the Prime Minister’s Office. The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in New York. While the much-anticipated sit-down is a win for Netanyahu, it certainly will not be smooth sailing for him while he is in New York, where he will have to contend with more protesters.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the senior rabbi of the influential Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan, recently implored her congregation to support Israel’s judicial reform protesters.

“This year, Israel elected the most right-wing, ultra-religious government in its history, which quickly moved to weaken the independence of the judiciary, steamroll the rights of minorities, and mobilize a private militia,” Buchdahl told her congregation on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

“In a matter of months, this new government has taken actions that threaten to turn Israel into an authoritarian, theocratic state that very few American Jews will be able to support. What a distance we have traveled in so little time,” she continued.

Buchdahl, who marched with protesters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this year, will aim to be a pain in Netanyahu’s side while he is in New York as she leads protests along with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman.

“If you care about democratic rights, help preserve the only functional democracy in the Middle East. If you care about the vulnerable, safeguard the sole sanctuary for Jewish refugees in need everywhere. If you value Jewish peoplehood, hear the cries of the other half of our Jewish family and remember the destiny of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people] is bound one to the other,” Buchdal told her congregation. “This young, messy, miraculous Jewish state is the most important sovereign, democratic project of the Jewish people of the last 2,000 years. We cannot walk away,” Buchdal added.

Between meeting world leaders and dodging protesters, Netanyahu is sure to have an interesting trip to the US. What the protesters accomplish, if anything, is yet to be seen.

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