(JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not shying away from controversy as he embarks on his first trip to the United States since his reelection last year.
Before he boarded the plane early on Monday, Netanyahu accused Israeli antigovernment protesters of “joining forces” with the country’s enemies. And he praised Elon Musk, the billionaire social media mogul who once again flirted with antisemitism on Sunday by accusing George Soros, the progressive Jewish megadonor, of seeking “the destruction of western civilization.”
Netanyahu will meet with Musk on Monday before he heads to the United Nations, where he will meet with President Joe Biden and later deliver an address to the General Assembly. The Biden meeting is one Netanyahu has sought for months, though it will take place at the U.N. and not at the White House. Biden had demurred on a White House meeting due to opposition to some of Netanyahu’s policies.
Throughout the five-day trip, during which he is also scheduled to meet with American Jewish leaders, Netanyahu is expected to meet a protest movement led by expatriate Israelis who oppose his efforts to weaken the Israeli judiciary.
In remarks at the airport, Netanyahu lumped those protesters in with Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization, both of which are or have previously been Israel’s chief adversaries. He accused the protesters, who have already mounted demonstrations in the U.S. cities he plans to visit, of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran.”
Having to face Israeli protesters in the United States — a country where Netanyahu spent many of his early years and where he served as Israel’s United Nations ambassador — clearly irked him. “When they defame Israel before the nations of the world, it seems normal to them,” he said. “I don’t regard it as normal. When I was leader of the opposition, I never did that.”
Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition centrist Blue and White Party, wrote on X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter, that likening the protesters to Israel’s enemies is “grave and must be thoroughly condemned.”
Later on Monday, Netanyahu’s office sought to walk back the comment, saying in a statement that when he “used the word ‘joining,'” he was referring to Israelis who will “be demonstrating at the same time as supporters of the PLO and BDS, which has never happened before.”
The protest movement, called UnXeptable, has projected images onto major U.S. landmarks accusing Netanyahu of seeking to overhaul the courts as a means of quashing his ongoing trial for corruption charges.
In San Francisco, where Netanyahu is set to meet Monday with Musk, the protesters projected an image of Netanyahu onto Alcatraz. the shuttered and notorious island prison, depicting him behind bars in an orange jumpsuit alongside a message reading, “Welcome Bibi.” In New York, protesters projected text onto the U.N. headquarters, reading, “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu’s meeting with Musk on Monday is the first major item on his agenda, and will include an hourlong live conversation between the two on X, which Musk owns. The meeting comes after weeks during which Musk has attacked the Anti-Defamation League online for tanking the platform’s ad revenue, an accusation the ADL denies. Musk has threatened to sue the ADL for billions of dollars.
Musk has also repeatedly attacked Soros, the progressive philanthropist and frequent target of antisemitic conspiracies. On Sunday, Musk replied to a post that called the migrant crisis in Italy a “Soros-led invasion” — an echo of a pervasive antisemitic theory falsely claiming that Jews are seeking to replace majority-white countries with migrants of color.
“The Soros organization appears to want nothing less than the destruction of western civilization,” Musk replied. Earlier this year, Jewish groups condemned Musk for casting Soros as an all-controlling evildoer.
At the airport, Netanyahu described Musk as a pioneer, praising the tech entrepreneur’s pursuits in the field of artificial intelligence. The two had a phone conversation on that topic earlier this year.
“I will start this visit in California where I intend to meet the current leader of the most dramatic development in the new age and perhaps in general, Elon Musk,” he said. “I will discuss artificial intelligence with him and I will also work toward encouraging him to invest in Israel in the coming years. He is, to a large degree, paving the way that will change the face of humanity and also the face of the State of Israel. Israel needs to be a leader in artificial intelligence.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu will meet with Biden. Biden has declined to invite the Israeli prime minister in part because he is concerned that Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, which would dramatically reduce the independence of the courts, is a threat to Israeli democracy. Instead, Netanyahu and Biden will meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Netanyahu is scheduled to address the body on Friday morning.
Netanyahu has traditionally used his U.N. platform to condemn Iran and its nuclear plans. He pledged to do so again and listed the world leaders he would meet with, including Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He claimed that he was much in demand on the world stage.
“Unfortunately, I cannot meet with all the leaders who made requests but I hope to meet with most of them,” he said at the airport.