Airbnb tests new U.S. laws on boycotts after dropping settlement listings

An author of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act in the Senate, Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, wants to hear from Airbnb, his office told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

November 21, 2018 18:37
3 minute read.
A general view shows the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank Septe

A general view shows the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, in the West Bank September 11, 2018. Picture taken September 11, 2018. (photo credit: MUSSA QAWASMA / REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON – Airbnb’s move this week to delist properties located in Jewish settlements in the West Bank from its website prompted enough of an outcry in Israel to be heard in Washington, where key lawmakers are expressing concern and raising the prospect of legal action against the service giant.

The decision by Airbnb, an online marketplace for property rentals, sparked furor from Israeli officials this week. Cabinet ministers, including Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, said they are exploring whether the San Francisco-based company had violated any US laws designed to address the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

There are many such laws to review. Over half of US states have passed anti-BDS legislation in the past three years, which threaten to nix state government contracting and participation with companies that discriminate on the basis of national origin or place of residence. And a bill making its way through Congress – with bipartisan support in both houses– seeks to shield Israeli businesses engaged in the West Bank by criminally penalizing US entities who participate in international boycotts.

An author of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act in the Senate, Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, wants to hear from Airbnb, his office told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

“We are looking into this. We have questions and concerns,” said Emily Benavides, Portman’s spokesperson. “Senator Portman has long fought highly selective and discriminatory efforts to isolate Israel.”

On the state level, sources tell the Post that the Illinois state legislature – which passed the nation’s first local anti-BDS law in 2015 – will meet in mid-December and is expected to debate whether Airbnb had violated its statute.

The law defines boycotting Israel as “engaging in actions that are politically motivated and are intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with the State of Israel or companies based in the State of Israel or in territories controlled by the State of Israel” – an explicit reference to those boycotting the Jewish State’s policy in the West Bank.

“If state regulators and boards of investment determine Airbnb’s action was politically motivated, Airbnb will become the most high-profile company blacklisted for boycotting Israel,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who was involved in the drafting of the Illinois law.

Airbnb says it struggled with its decision to delist its 200-odd properties previously offered in the area. But Human Rights Watch, who advocated for the move over the course of two years during private talks with the company, said that Airbnb’s discrimination against national origin was actually practiced against Palestinians, as they are unable to rent properties on the website on lands they own.

The argument provides Airbnb with a potential legal arrow in its quiver as it prepares for the potential battle with at least one or more states, and possibly with some senior members of Congress.

Their struggle will vary by state. Several legislatures did not include reference to territory “controlled” by Israel, leaving room for boycotts that are tailored to West Bank activity. But prospective federal anti-boycott legislation seems to cover this sort of activity.

It is the policy of Congress, according to the bill, to view “companies that either operate, or have business relations with entities that operate, beyond Israel’s 1949 Armistice lines, including east Jerusalem,” as amounting to “policies as actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.”

Israel attained land beyond the Green Line in the 1967 War, its settlements in those areas are a subject of concern to Palestinian groups and some countries.

“We are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region. Our team has wrestled with this issue and we have struggled to come up with the right approach,” Airbnb said on Monday. “We concluded that we should remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

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