Airbnb decision is Israel’s fault – but not for the reasons you think

By failing to head off a spectacular loss to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Israel cost itself dearly.

Airbnb apartment (Illustrative) (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Airbnb apartment (Illustrative)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Whether you agree with it or not, last week’s decision by Airbnb to remove listings from areas inside the West Bank from its rental program was one the company felt was in its best interest. According to the statement on its website explaining its decision, Airbnb’s “hope is that someday sooner rather than later, a framework is put in place where the entire global community is aligned so there will be a resolution to this historic conflict and a clear path forward for everybody to follow. As of today, this is an aspirational hope.”
Let us take Airbnb at its word – that it is genuinely concerned with advancing peace, and by extension, does not want to promote something which it believes to stand at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. That is something many people – both inside and outside of Israel – applaud and support. One can’t fault an organization for seeking to advance peace and co-existence. While much attention has been drawn to the Airbnb decision itself, insufficient attention has been brought a different problem entirely: how the company may have arrived at this decision. In this instance, Israel has only itself to blame for failing, once again, to be its own best advocate.
According to numerous reports, the Palestinians and their supporters have been actively lobbying Airbnb for years in an effort to get the company to remove listings of Jewish homes in the West Bank. Additionally, the same day on which Airbnb made its announcement, Human Rights Watch published a study it conducted titled “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements,” which traces the status of the land on which rental properties were built and evaluates how sites such as Airbnb “contribute to making settlements sustainable economically and benefit from the serious rights abuses and entrenched discriminatory practices stemming from the settlements.”
When presented with the 65-page report from HRW, and with the information that the organization was going to make the report public, Airbnb was faced with a choice: Tell the story on its own terms or have someone else (in this case, HRW) tell it instead. Airbnb chose the former, which was then “supported” the next day by the release of the report from HRW.
Had Airbnb not been faced with this decision and pressured by the lobbying efforts of the Palestinians (led by the HRW report), it is entirely possible, even likely, that the company would not have made any changes to its policies on listing homes in the West Bank.
By failing to head off a spectacular loss to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Israel cost itself dearly. 
While the Palestinians and HRW were lobbying Airbnb, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, the man apparently tasked with fighting the BDS movement, was claiming in interviews that Israel has made significant progress in the fight against BDS by pointing to the work his ministry is going with students on campus and governments around the world. Yet, over the last few months leading up to the decision by Airbnb (and looking at only a small selection of BDS “wins”), Argentina canceled a soccer match set to be played in Israel, Shakira pulled out of a concert in Tel Aviv, Adidas ended its sponsorship of the Israel Football Association, and Honda canceled an event it was scheduled to hold in Jerusalem. Instead of getting out in front of anti-Israel sentiment, Erdan and his ministry are fighting from behind, crying foul and filing lawsuits. That is meaningless when companies like Airbnb make announcements such as this, as in the court of public opinion, Israel has already lost.
AS THE Strategic Affairs Ministry’s main task today is seemingly fighting BDS around the world, it needs to make the following changes in order to be more effective in carrying out this responsibility:
1. The ministry needs its own professional minister. Erdan, in addition to his responsibility as strategic affairs minister, is also public security minister, responsible for public security, law enforcement and corrections, overseeing a number of major operational bodies. Just to name a few: the Israel Police, the Israel Prison Service, and the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority.
That is a tremendous amount of responsibility, and for those watching, Erdan has been in the news on an almost daily basis in this role. (It also is a role which is much more visible to Israeli voters). Simply put, there is no way a minister can be effective in two simultaneous roles, especially when one takes such clear precedent over the other.
If Israel wants to make this ministry into something more than just a political jockeying stick, the minister who is tasked with running the office must be able to dedicate his or her time to building and carrying out effective strategic campaigns. The lack of such a person at the helm of this ministry is a symptom that the Israeli government, and by extension the general public, does not fully grasp the impact that BDS is causing and its growing momentum around the world.
2. The ministry must clearly communicate what it does and who it serves. Every single government ministry in Israel has a Hebrew and English website with information about its role and its objectives. The Strategic Affairs Ministry does not, and therefore the public does not know what it is supposed to do, why it was created (hopefully for a reason that goes beyond simply politics), and what its achievements have been. This lack of information and transparency makes it much easier to dodge criticism when things happen which it was supposed to prevent from occurring. (It has not, however, stopped Erdan from taking credit for things he can point to as his singular achievements.)
3. Assuming that combating BDS, as well as defending Israel against its detractors around the world, is part of the remit of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, it must make major strides on the ground outside of Israel to fight this battle. In the US, for example, the ministry needs to be more agile and dynamic in its efforts to keep pace – and stay ahead – of this growing challenge. It must allocate a significant amount of resources and make a concerted effort to reach key decision and policy-makers in the halls of finance, government and technology, to help make its case on the ground outside of Israel, as well as allow the ministry to have its finger on the pulse in key regions around the world.
It is no longer enough for Israel to continue to just react angrily when news such as that from Airbnb comes out. The country needs to work to prevent such news from happening in the first place.
This is not to say that what Airbnb did was fair, but rather that the focus should not be at shouting about the perceived injustices of the decision. The Israeli government has failed to grasp the significance and sway of the BDS movement. Let’s hope this decision is used as a teaching moment and that the government takes to heart where it failed and how it can work to prevent this from happening again.
The writer is the founder and CEO of GKPR, a Tel Aviv-based strategic communications firm.