Airbnb Vice-President Chris Lanahan on a helicopter tour of the West Bank, December 18, 2018.
(photo credit: COURTESY THE ISRAELI PROJECT)
Airbnb’s on-again/off-again settler boycott took another strange twist on Tuesday, when one of its top executives, Chris Lehane, took the unusual step of traveling over the Green Line to visit the Barkan Industrial Park.
He is part of a group of Airbnb officials who are in Israel this week as the company reexamines its November decision not to list Jewish vacation rentals in Area C of the West Bank.
On Monday, the company – which for the last month has been the corporate poster child for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – announced that it actually opposed the campaign.
Then it backed up that statement with its feet, literally.
Less than 24 hours later, the US-based company took a step considered taboo among BDS supporters and visited Judea and Samaria, akin to the wolf walking into the sheep pen to make friends.
In Barkan, Airbnb executives met there with Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, who often hosts foreign delegations, including members of Congress, European politicians, corporate executives, ambassadors and Christians wanting to see the biblical heartland.
Barkan is often a stop on those tours. The industrial park is touted as an economic oasis in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its factories employ both Palestinians and Israelis.
In many cases, the visitors already support an Israeli presence in the West Bank and in other cases they are on the fence and want to examine the situation.
The Airbnb visit marked the first time Dagan hosted a company that had announced a plan to boycott the settlements and whose website still states that the ban is company policy.
The visit was kept under wraps until 6 p.m. Tuesday, when Dagan posted a statement about it on his Facebook page, explaining that the visit was “an important step against BDS.”
Dagan took the Airbnb executives to the Alon Group’s factory, where a Palestinian terrorist shot to death two Israelis in October.
Dagan told them he was glad to hear of their anti-BDS statement and asked them to make good on that position by rescinding its November decision.
Earlier in the day, former Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch posted on his Twitter feed that on behalf of the Israel Project, he had taken Airbnb executives on a helicopter ride so they could view Israel from the sky and better understand its complex reality.
The Airbnb group also met with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin the day before.
The trip set off a chain reaction of confusion, after the company spokesperson in Israel sent out a message that the company did not intend to execute its boycott policy.
The ministry tweeted its excitement about the statement, which caused local media to proclaim that Airbnb had rescinded its boycott.
Airbnb’s press office then issued a statement, explaining that the reports were inaccurate, that it opposed BDS, but it did not confirm that it had rescinded its boycott policy.
“Airbnb communicated that we are developing the tools needed to implement our policy, and that process includes continuing our dialogue with the Government of Israel and other stakeholders,” the statement read instead.
As of press time, the company’s web site continued to post a statement explaining that it bans settler listings.
Prior to the November boycott decision, settler listings had appeared on its map. Those listings have indeed been removed, but in some cases they can still be found among the text listings, although the listings do not pop up easily on the site.
For example, when you plug in Efrat, Bethlehem comes up. In other cases, the listings are still there, particularly for those who know how to search for them.
In effect, the company has in place a partial boycott. But its public statement generated a backlash. Numerous legal cases were filed against it both in the US and in Israel, and the company risks running afoul of anti-BDS laws in 26 states.
International legal expert Eugene Kontorovich summed it up this way: “Underneath all the spin, the company has been alarmed by lawsuits against their policy and by recent action by states like Illinois to block pension investment in the company. They are trying to obfuscate and spin until they get past their planned IPO in the spring.
“While the company’s actions show they are alarmed by the unexpected blowback to their policy, without officially ending their uniquely discriminatory policy against Jewish communities, they will still face the legal consequences,” said Kontorovich, who is the director of International Law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum.