(JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he spoke by phone with Elon Musk on Sunday, calling the businessman and Twitter CEO “a person whose intelligence and contribution to humanity I greatly appreciate.”
The tech mogul, currently the world’s richest individual despite notching steep losses at Twitter, has drawn controversy for his tweets about the Holocaust survivor and liberal megadonor George Soros and about Israeli data on COVID-19. The U.S. antisemitism envoy, Deborah Lipstadt, decried the Soros tweets as trafficking in antisemitic tropes, while Israel’s health ministry called him out for sharing “fake news” about the country’s COVID record.
Netanyahu did not mention those recent statements in his account of their “long conversation,” instead noting that the two had discussed artificial intelligence, an area Musk is reportedly preparing to enter.
“He expressed his view that Israel could become a significant global player in the field,” said Netanyahu, who added that he planned to convene a team to bring more AI into Israeli society. He added, “Just as we turned Israel into a global cyber power, we will also do so in artificial intelligence.”
Musk himself has not addressed his phone call with Netanyahu. On Monday he planned to host a live event with Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has compared COVID-19 vaccines to “Hitler’s Germany.” Musk, too, has implied that the vaccines — which Netanyahu eagerly made Israel the first country to offer widely — are not needed, last week joining a Twitter conversation questioning Israeli data about the number of healthy Israelis who have died as a result of COVID-19.
Israel’s Health Ministry responded to him, saying, “Fake news is dangerous.” It was the second Israeli ministry to criticize Musk’s recent remarks, even as others in the government have praised him.
After Musk suggested that Soros “hates humanity” and “reminds me of Magneto,” the “X-Men” villain who is also a Holocaust survivor, Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League condemned his comments. Israel’s foreign ministry said he was encouraging antisemitism on the social media platform.
But the country’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, disavowed his own ministry’s critique. Also rushing to Musk’s defense was Amichai Chikli, Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs who is charged with combating antisemitism.
A member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Chikli praised Musk, tweeting that “the vast majority of Israeli citizens see Elon Musk as an amazing entrepreneur and a role model,” and added that criticizing Soros was “quite the opposite” of antisemitism. He later told The Atlantic that he had not been responding to Musk’s actual tweets about Soros, and refused to say whether he believed they were antisemitic.