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Hundreds protest as Netanyahu meets Elon Musk in San Francisco

Protests greeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in California and many more are planned for New York City.
Avi Ohaion/GPO

Hundreds of Israelis and members of the American Jewish community protested Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Monday arrival at the San Jose San Francisco airport, chanting "shame" and holding signs against his government's judicial overhaul plan that has polarized the country. 

Demonstrators also awaited Netanyahu outside San Francisco's Signia hotel, where he is staying for his one-day visit to the city. They kept demonstrating later that day as he met with X owner Elon Musk.

Netanyahu and Elon Musk met midday Monday at the Telsa headquarters in Palo Alto. They exchanged views for an hour broadcast live on the platform formerly named Twitter, discussing the threats and opportunities presented by artificial intelligence.  

Demonstrations against Netanyahu’s arrival to Californian started Sunday night as activists projected on the wall of the infamous Alcatraz prison an image of Netanyahu dressed in orange and behind bars. "Welcome Bibi," it read. In Israel, the anti-judicial overhaul movement is led in part by leaders of the high-tech industry and many Israelis working in Silicon Valley have come out to demonstrate. 

Netanyahu arrived Monday morning, kicking off his first visit to the United States since taking office end of December 2022. He is scheduled to leave San Francisco Monday night and arrive Tuesday morning to New York, where he will meet with world leaders including US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before addressing the United Nations General Assembly at its annual summit.

Relations between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government have been strained by a series of issues since the beginning of Netanyahu's current term. On several occasions, the White House has criticized racist and anti-Palestinian statements by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. It has also criticized the government’s West Bank settlement policies and expressed concern for Israel’s democratic values on the backdrop of the judicial overhaul plan. It is no secret that Netanyahu wished to meet with Biden at the white House, but the American president did not invite him there. 

UnXeptable organizing protests

The protests against Netanyahu in San Francisco and Silicon Valley and others expected in New York are organized by UnXeptable, a group of Israeli expats around the globe in support of their country's democracy. Activists of the group are organizing a series of events for Netanyahu’s visit in New York Monday evening through next Sunday, particularly while he addresses the United Nations and meets with Biden. A large demonstration will take place on Tuesday at Times Square. Others will be held through the week outside the Manhattan hotel where Netanyahu will be staying.

Several liberal Judaism leaders both in San Francisco and in New York are mobilized against the judicial overhaul. Prominent Reform and Conservative (progressive Judaism) rabbis mentioned the expected demonstrations in their Jewish New Year sermons Saturday and Sunday, and some intend to participate in the protests.

Netanyahu himself caused additional uproar in Israel just before departing to the United States by accusing the overhaul protesters of joining forces with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Iran.

"I think this is the 12th time I'm going to speak at the UN as prime minister. There have always been protests both for and against Israel. But this time, we're seeing protests against Israel led by people who team up with the PLO, Iran and others," said Netanyahu. "Nothing is surprising anymore, but that won't stop me from representing Israel proudly and in the best way possible for all its citizens."

Retired Israeli ambassador Pinhas Avivi told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu is trying to make the misleading impression that the protesters are demonstrating against Israel, noting that vast majority of them are people loyal to the state, and many of them have served in the army. 

"In the last few months, Netanyahu offered the international press 22 interviews while refusing to dialogue with the Israeli media. So it is Netanyahu who turned the issue global to begin with. You cannot speak with all foreign networks and then complain about demonstrations against you abroad," Avivi noted.

He added that the mobilization of American Jewish leaders and the US demonstrations only emphasize the legitimate and democratic character of the domestic Israeli protests. 

The ambassador warned that the protest movement abroad must be careful to focus on the issue of the judicial overhaul eroding Israel’s democracy, and not mix it up with Netanyahu’s fraud trial. He said, "If you are fighting for the integrity of the judicial system, you cannot judge the prime minister before the court does. You cannot announce that he is a criminal the way people did in San Francisco, projecting the ad showing Netanyahu in orange prison garb. It it unhelpful for the battle for Israel’s democracy."

Berlin-based Lior Lahir is one of the leaders of Defend Israeli Democracy, a global protest movement against the judicial overhaul. He told Al-Monitor he believes Israelis cannot stay silent over the judicial overhaul even if they do not live in the country at the moment. Too much is at stake, he warned. 

"Our group is a decentralized, international and political non-partisan movement of Israelis around the world. On the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, we will continue to defend the foundations of our democracy, be it in San Francisco, New York or here in Europe," he said, adding, "The protest against Netanyahu abroad shows the international community and especially the Biden administration that many Israelis stand for democracy. It is an important message for the Americans to take into account when they deal with Netanyahu." 

Editor's note: An earlier version erroneously stated that Lior Lahir was based in Brussels.

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