Elon Musk’s Starlink diplomacy: From antisemitism controversy to satellite deals in Israel

Elon Musk, amidst international backlash for endorsing antisemitic content on his social media platform X, is strategically leveraging his satellite internet provider, Starlink, to mend relations in Israel. Despite facing criticism for his political views and recent controversies, Musk’s visit to Israel, where he was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscores the global influence he wields. Starlink’s role in providing essential communication services has allowed Musk to engage with world leaders, including discussions with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Pentagon officials. The trip also involved negotiations with Israel’s Communications Minister about a potential deal with Starlink. Musk’s powerful position as the owner of both X and Starlink raises questions about the intersection of technology, politics, and Musk’s controversial stances on free speech.

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Elon Musk Wields Starlink in Israel to Curb Uproar Over Antisemitism

By Simon Marks and Marissa Newman

A week ago, Elon Musk was facing international backlash after endorsing antisemitic content on his social media platform, X. Corporations including Apple Inc. and Walt Disney Co. stopped advertising on the site in protest of hateful and racist commentary.

And yet on Monday, Musk was in Israel being welcomed by the nation’s political elite — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to visit the region where the Islamic militant group Hamas murdered 1,200 people on Oct. 7. 

Elon Musk and Benjamin Netanyahu visit the Kfar Aza Kibbutz in Israel on Nov. 27.

For all of Musk’s stumbles, world leaders can’t afford to criticize or alienate him for long: The world’s richest person holds the keys to powerful technological tools. In this case, Starlink, his satellite internet provider, is at the heart of his political clout. Starlink, which is owned and operated by Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, formally named Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has provided him with the ability to woo world leaders from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to officials at the Pentagon, by offering essential communications services

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“Musk is not just a player that should be regulated by the American government. He’s a global order player, who should probably have a seat at the UN Security Council,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Elon Musk can simply shirk his responsibilities and that’s because of his power.”

While Musk toured the Kfar Aza kibbutz, where some of the worst violence occurred last month, wearing a protective vest and snapping photos or videos on his phone, Israel’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi tweeted about a deal the ministry is discussing with Starlink. A representative for SpaceX didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Elon Musk, I congratulate you for reaching a principle understanding with the Ministry of Communications under my leadership.

As a result of this significant agreement, Starlink satellite units can only be operated in Israel with the approval of the Israeli Ministry of…— 🇮🇱שלמה קרעי

– Shlomo Karhi (@shlomo_karhi) November 27, 2023

Musk had proposed providing internet services to Gaza last month and said Starlink could help support connectivity with “internationally recognized aid organizations.” But Karhi rejected the offer at the time, saying “Hamas will use it for terrorist activities.”

Musk, who calls himself a free-speech absolutist, often weighs in on political matters on X, which he bought last year for $44 billion. But he may have gone a step too far earlier this month after agreeing with an antisemitic post, which said that Jewish people hold a “dialectical hatred” of white people. The global response was swift and fierce. The New York Times reported that the exodus of advertisers could cost X as much as $75 million in lost revenue this year. 

It wasn’t clear how Musk’s trip to Israel came about, whether he was invited by Netanyahu or requested the trip himself. But his generally warm welcome in the country mixed pleas for regulating antisemitic commentary on X with discussions of satellites. 

Starlink now counts more than 4,500 satellites in space, more than half of all active satellites, that communicate with terminals on Earth to provide high-speed internet. Based in Hawthorne, California, the closely held company was valued last year at about $140 billion and could eventually seek a public listing.

Starlink’s service in Ukraine raises questions about how it may be used in the war between Israel and Hamas. Since the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Musk has provided Starlink dishes to the country, but the service has been subject to his capricious whims. 

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Last year, Musk suggested Kyiv should cede the Crimea region to Russia as part of a peace deal. After sharp criticism erupted over his comments, Musk threatened to cut support for Starlink in Ukraine, saying SpaceX couldn’t carry the cost indefinitely, only to later reverse that position. This summer, the Pentagon confirmed that it is buying Starlink communications terminals for use by the Ukraine military against Russia. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Musk earlier this year for refusing a Ukrainian request to use the Starlink satellite communication network in the Russian-annexed Crimean port city of Sevastopol to strike Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Musk said he refused it to avoid complicity in a “major act of war and conflict escalation.”  

As chief executive officer of electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc. Musk’s business ties in China have also put him at odds with Taiwan, which is seeking a system of satellites operating in low-Earth orbit. Musk and his Starlink network are one clear solution, but Taiwan distrusts the billionaire, given his pro-Beijing comments. 

While Musk’s political views have often put him in hot water with world leaders, he has made efforts in recent months with Israel. Musk and Netanyahu met in September in California, where the two men did in fact discuss the issue of rampant antisemitism on X. At the time, Musk said, “obviously I’m against antisemitism. I’m against anti-anything that promotes hate and conflict.” 

On Monday, Netanyahu showed Musk a video of the atrocities carried out by Hamas. The two men talked on a public broadcast on X and agreed on helping to rebuild Gaza and support for the Palestinians.

Elon Musk and Benjamin Netanyahu visit the Kibbutz Kfar Aza in Israel on Nov. 27. Photographer: Amos Ben-Gershom/Handout/Getty Images

Netanyahu’s aim was to convince Musk of Hamas’ brutality and hatred of Israel, he may have achieved that. But, according to Altshuler, Musk’s power as owner of Starlink and X far outweighs his personal beliefs.

“We see X is not removing any neo-Nazi antisemitic content and accounts, from the President of Iran to Jackson Hinkle,” she said, referring to the American political commentator and social media influencer. “It’s against the community standards of X, which is compensating financially those accounts based on their new ad-sharing plan.”

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