Bibi opens his heart about legal reforms during Musk love-in

AI and antisemitism were expected to dominate coverage of the summit but two seemingly chance remarks by both men caught the most attention

September 21, 2023 10:43

Being able to dominate the news agenda in Israel has always been one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s most effective political tools.

At least it used to be, until he returned at end of 2022 to the prime minister’s office and the protest movement against his government and its judicial overhaul plans seemed to be calling all the shots and setting the tone for news coverage.

As he planned his trip to the US this week, he was already aware that it would be overshadowed by groups of American Jews and Israelis protesting against him during the United Nations General Assembly in New York and by the public snub from President Joe Biden, who refused to host him at the White House and instead agreed only to meet him at the UN on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

He came up with a brilliant ploy to change the agenda of his visit. Instead of flying straight to New York, he would take a long detour first via California, where he would meet the tech titan Elon Musk, owner of companies such as electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla and the social network X, previously known as Twitter.

At the Tesla plant in Fremont, he would hold a public discussion with Musk, broadcast live on X, on the promise and perils of Artificial Intelligence.

For both men it would be an excellent opportunity. Netanyahu has spoken in recent months of his desire to make Israel a world centre of AI research, and holding a public meeting with some of the leading entrepreneurs and innovators in the field could counter the narrative of his being opposed to the Israeli tech community, which is heavily involved in the protests against his government.

For Musk, embroiled in a toxic brawl with the Anti-Defamation League, which has accused him of endorsing antisemitic tropes on X and allowing back notorious supremacists who were blocked on the platform before he purchased it, having a high-profile encounter with Israel’s prime minister would be a useful way to counter claims of antisemitism.

But ultimately, it was neither AI nor antisemitism that dominated the coverage of the event on Monday. Instead, it was two seemingly chance remarks by both men which caught most attention.

From Musk’s side, it was his answer to Netanyahu’s question on how to deal with the existence of multitudes of “bot” accounts spreading fake news.

It wasn’t simple to deal with, he answered, and X is considering “moving to a small monthly payment” for the use of its platform. “It’s the only way I can think of to combat vast armies of bots,” he explained.

To pay for Twitter? The very idea scandalised social media and emerged as the main headline from the Musk-Netanyahu summit. But in Israel, one of the prime minister’s comments caused even more fuss.

Musk interestingly chose to bring up the Netanyahu government’s “legal reform”. Even in California, he couldn’t escape it and the answer was intriguing.

“I came in [to office] and there was a proposal put in which I thought was bad,” Netanyahu responded.

He expanded that the proposal 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.”

Since when was Netanyahu convinced that the reform was bad? Why has he waited eight and a half months since Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented it to say so? Does the rest of his coalition know that’s what he thinks?

Back in the Knesset in Jerusalem, Levin was speaking at a gathering for the new year of a group of like-minded right-wing activists. He hadn’t got the memo: “Even if we don’t reach agreements [with the opposition], I have no intention of cancelling the reform.”

He admitted, however, that he wasn’t certain he had the backing of the coalition any more.

“If all 64 Knesset members [of the coalition] were like [Likud stalwarts] Simcha Rothman and Avihai Boaron, I would be confident.” The message was clear: Levin is blaming other members of the government in backtracking on the constitutional changes.

But surely he didn’t mean the prime minister. Or did he?

There were dark mutterings of a “Levin camp” emerging within Likud (“camps” within Likud is a by-word for rebellion against the party leader) as the prime minister’s aides rushed to explain that there was no rift between the two and that they were in constant contact.

After all, hadn’t Netanyahu appointed Levin as caretaker prime minister during his absence?

Likud put out a statement: “In no way did the prime minister disapprove of the legal reform. His words referred only to the override clause. The leaders of the coalition agreed months ago that a balance with the court can be achieved in other ways.”

Which is also news to many in the coalition, especially in the strictly Orthodox parties, who still demand the override clause to ensure that the law on exempting yeshivah students from military service cannot be overturned by the Supreme Court.

“Netanyahu slipped up with Musk and said what he really thinks. There’s no doubt that he now thinks that the reform is bad for him,” says a former senior aide. “He liked it originally when Levin presented it because he returned to office furious with the legal system, which he believed forced him out of office by indicting him.

“But now he’s realised that he can’t get anything done because of the fight over the reform and it’s simply not worth it. But he’s stuck with Levin and the other elements in the coalition who won’t give up on the reform.”

All this overshadowed quite a few interesting things said in the meeting on the original topic: Artificial Intelligence. But the controversy over the government’s constitutional changes is actually connected to the prospects of Israel becoming a global AI hub.

Israel already has the highest number of AI start-ups per capita of any country (the US is second and Britain third) but the scale of the AI industry is expected to balloon in the next few years, and to keep its position Israel will need more qualified personnel and computing power.

“AI is a field for which you need a lot of people with deep experience and PhD-level knowledge,” says a senior figure in the Israeli tech industry. “And you need the infrastructure of super-computers and advanced chips [processing units].

"For Israel to lead on this, the government needs to invest in both, and we’re not seeing that happen right now.”

In other words, if Netanyahu wants Israel to become an AI power, he needs to start spending money on the very people who are now in the streets opposing him and his policies.

September 21, 2023 10:43

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