Airbnb Quit the Settlement Business. If Only Israel Would.

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

A cat jumps at a guest house advertised on Airbnb in the Nofei Prat settlement in the West Bank. 

An old friend from America who's a tour operator came to Jerusalem and I went to meet him. His tour group was staying in a hotel in the center of town that I'd never noticed because, in the past, it was probably a down-on-its-luck apartment building or home to small offices of lawyers, accountants, and companies of indistinct purposes. Converting it to a hotel made sense, my friend said, because even in the November off-season, every hotel room in Jerusalem is full. Tourism is roaring.

So are short-term rentals of apartments and of rooms in them. A 2017 survey of tourists in Tel Aviv found that half were staying in Airbnb or similar accommodations. Young friends tell me of Jerusalem university students making the rent by going home to mom and dad on weekends and renting their apartments to tourists. Then again, the rent is likely higher because some landlords are moving their properties from yearly leases to nightly rentals. 

Now Airbnb is in the middle of a political ruckus in Israel. But it's not about rents. As usual in Israel, it's about the occupation, and about the Netanyahu government's untiring, absurd effort to mortgage the country's future for the sake of West Bank settlements.

The affair blew up on Monday, when Airbnb released a statement that it would “remove listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank” from its site. The timing, it turned out, was not at all a matter of chance. The next morning, Human Rights Watch and the Israel organization Kerem Navot published a joint report, “Bed and Breakfast on Stolen Land: Tourist Rental Listings in West Bank Settlements.” Kerem Navot specializes in exacting research on West Bank land ownership and the means by which Israel has appropriated Palestinian property for settlements.

The report necessarily states the obvious: “Settlement of civilians in occupied territory are unlawful under international humanitarian law,” and by handling listings in them, Airbnb and its competitor Booking.com help “make West Bank settlements more profitable and therefore more sustainable.” Besides that, Palestinians are barred from settlements unless they have Israeli work permits. So rentals there are necessarily discriminatory. Quite a few of the listings in settlements deceptively claim they are inside Israel. And as the report details, some listings are for homes on stolen property—real estate owned by individual Palestinians on which settlements have been built. 

Airbnb wisely decided that it would smarter to announce it was getting out of settlement tourism before the report went online. Booking.com, on the other hand, is continuing to help tourists be settlers for a day or a week. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the company claimed that helping settlers make a profit on their homes is not a service “supporting the maintenance and existence of settlements.”

Since Airbnb didn't clean up its site before issuing its statement, I could still check its settlement listings. Some examples: a guest room listed as being in “Karnei Shomron, Israel,” a “beautiful home in a small village” for rent in “Alei Zahav, Israel,” and “a rustic caravan in the middle of a vineyard” listed as being in Gush Etzion, Israel.” All of those spots are outside the borders of Israel as internationally recognized, and as defined by Israel itself. 

Airbnb's announcement ignited fury from predictable sources. Gilad Erdan, the cabinet minister tasked with fighting boycotts of Israel, attacked the company for acting “on political considerations rather than business considerations.” The decision, Erdan said, was “surrender to anti-Semitic BDS organizations.” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin—like Erdan, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party—said, “We are going to restrict the ability of Airbnb to work here. If you have a policy of discrimination against Israelis, you cannot earn money here in Israel. We'll probably put a very high tax here in Israel on the activity of Airbnb.” Levin called the decision “discriminatory.” That word, and “anti-Semitism,” repeated in reactions from other government officials, from settlement leaders and from their supporters. 

Erdan, as a government minister, should know that business decisions—especially decisions of large businesses—are often political decisions as well. A case in point: The health of Israel's tourism industry and the high cost of housing in Israeli cities are both political issues in Israel. Airbnb affects both when it lists apartments in Tel Aviv. Cities around the world have learned that regulating Airbnb, or not doing so, is intensely political. 

All the more so, Israeli settlements are an entirely political project aimed at making Israeli rule of the West Bank permanent. Booking.com is making a political decision when lists rentals in settlements, as much as Airbnb did when it chose not to list them.

Erdan claims that Airbnb surrendered to the movement to boycott Israel. The consistent ploy of the Israeli government is to equate the settlements with Israel. It equates opposition to a dangerous policy with hatred for the country. By calling a decision to disengage from business in the settlements “anti-Semitic” Erdan and others go even further: They falsely equate the settlements with the entire Jewish people, in Israel and outside it. 

Levin promises to punish Airbnb's business inside Israel in response to the company withdrawing from settlements. The logical question for the company could well be whether it should continue operating in Israel.

A few weeks ago, Erdan and the Israeli Interior Ministry tried to prevent American student Lara Alqasem from entering Israel for graduate studies because she'd allegedly supported the movement to boycott Israel in the past. Erdan's move would, in effect, have forced her to boycott Israeli academia against her will. Fortunately, the Israeli Supreme Court saw the absurdity and allowed her to enter. 

Now Levin, trying to block a nonexistent boycott of Israel, wants to encourage a foreign company to pull out of the country.

I'm not sure whether this is insanity, incompetence or both. 

In the past it was fair to say that Israel was making the mistake of holding on to occupied territory. Under Erdan, Levin and—most of all—Netanyahu, the situation is now worse: The occupation is holding on to Israel, by the throat. The Airbnb tempest shows again that the government has put settlement above the national interest—and that the whole country would be better off if it got out of the settlement business.  

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