Israeli gov't declares war on Airbnb over West Bank ban

Airbnb Photo: Shutterstock

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin wants to restrict Airbnb while one Israeli has set up a domain - Airbnb-westbank, for the banned listings.

A home in the Israeli community of Oranim at NIS 500 a night and a studio apartment in the community of Revava for NIS 190 appear on Airbnb's listings. Despite its declaration on Monday that it would stop publishing properties located in West Bank Jewish settlements, a check by "Globes" shows that the Airbnb websites still lists vacation apartments for rent in these disputed locations.

Sources also inform "Globes" that Israeli government ministries, including the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Economy and Industry, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have established a joint team to consider what to do on the matter.

Airbnb's announcement that it planned removing 200 properties in Jewish communities in the territories from its database aroused a storm. "It can be said that Airbnb, a monopoly in its sector, is abusing its monopolistic power," Adv. Guy Ophir, a specialist in Internet law, told "Globes." "Airbnb can claim that its decision is economic because of the pressure exerted against it, and that it can be financially damaged, but it's exactly like a decision not to sell to redheaded customers for business reasons."

Ophir even "invited" the San Francisco based company to a legal battle in an interesting way. "As soon as Airbnb made its announcement that it would no longer offer apartments for rent in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, I bought the domain, 'Airbnb-westbank.' I'm sure that the company will get up on its back legs and file a lawsuit or a restraining order against me. I invite them to a court contest. Someone who boycotts geographic areas is not entitled to trademark protection in those areas. We'll put all of the properties excluded by Airbnb on the website."

Ophir added, "The company is choosing sides, and the question is whether they will allow Palestinian property owners to market properties on the West Bank. If they also don't allow Palestinians to lease properties, it will be hard to claim that discrimination is involved, because then it is an all-inclusive decision."

"A commercially ingenuous move"

Israeli law bans discrimination in supplying a product or services on the basis of residence. At the same time, the law refers to discrimination against a person receiving services, so property owners offering services cannot allege discrimination under this law. Dr. Ronit Levine-Schnur, a senior lecturer and scholar at the Harry Radzyner School of Law in the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, says, "The policy declared by Airbnb ostensibly does not express discrimination against a person on the basis of his or her residence. The company sets standards for the type of properties that it markets. For example, it can decide that it will not market properties without bathrooms or properties located in areas where there is a security risk or a political dispute."

At the same time, another law enacted in 2011, the Boycott Law, refers to preventing damage in Israel on the basis of a boycott. This law permits sanctions against someone calling openly for a boycott against the country, including boycotting cultural, economic, or academic connections because of an affiliation with Israel or an area under its control. "If we interpret Airbnb's stance as a public call for imposing a boycott, then the state can act according to what the law states, and can empower the minister of finance to deny benefits to that entity (according to a list specified in the law), or to restrict its ability to participate in tenders. In addition, a civil suit can be filed on the basis of this law, and compensation for damages caused by this call can ostensibly be demanded," says Levine-Schnur.

Dr. Efrat Tolkowsky, CEO of the Gazit-Globe Real Estate Institute at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, argues that the property owners have no case against Airbnb, because it is a private company and can make such decisions. Unlike Bezeq Israeli Telecommunication Co. Ltd. (TASE: BEZQ), it is not obligated to provide services to all households, and has the right to make such decisions. She says, "There are countries in which Airbnb does not operate at all, and these countries ostensibly could feel discriminated against. In its decision, the company stated that it examines each case on its merits, so that a counter-argument can be made against an allegation of supposed discrimination against occupied areas.

"Airbnb arose from a social cooperation agenda, and has suffered chronic problems as being responsible for the rise in real estate prices and rents, and as harming economically disadvantaged groups," Tolkowsky adds. "Here it is taking a step to position itself as a social business, which will give it free credits in activity that is marginal for the company. Today, being against the Jewish communities in the territories gains points, and for this company, it is an ingenuous move, both commercially and in public relations. It is positioning itself as social, and does not affect the real problem there.

"Airbnb is not going to solve the conflict in the Middle East; it is being somewhat hypocritical. It is removing properties in the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, but it is leaving properties in the Gaza Strip, even though Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization in the US."

"Globes": Will Booking.com, which leases properties, not just hotels, follow Airbnb's example?

"Booking.com is a completely commercial company with no social baggage. I can't imaging a situation in which it announces a similar measure that gives off an odor of BDS."

BDS claims a success

"There are conflicting views regarding whether companies should be doing business in the occupied territories that are the subject of historical disputes between Israelis and Palestinians," Airbnb wrote yesterday in a press release. "In the past, we made clear that we would operate in this area as allowed by law. We did this because we believe that people-to-people travel has considerable value and we want to help bring people together in as many places as possible around the world. We also explained that going forward we would ask questions, listen to experts, seek out our community for their thoughts, and continue to learn. "

Airbnb added, "…we must consider the impact we have and act responsibly… we will... recognize that each situation is unique and requires a case-by-case approach… and assess any potential safety risks for our hosts and guests" and also determine whether properties offered in "the occupied territories" reflect a direct connection to the conflict in the region. Airbnb concluded its announcement by expressing hope for peace in the region, perhaps also as a result of the economic pressure that it is now exerting.

In response, BDS took credit for the "success:" "We welcome Airbnb's decision... It is a first step in the right direction to end Airbnb’s profiting from Israel’s theft of indigenous Palestinians’ lands and natural resources." The organization complained, however, that the company was not excluding properties from the East Jerusalem area, and said it would struggle against this.

"An unfortunate decision based on political considerations"

Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin has more than once spoken in favor of apartments as a solution for tourists, given the large number of such apartments and the shortage of hotels, but said that he favored regulation of this sector, adding, however, "Any regulation, while welcome in itself, must be simple, so that it facilitates continued Airbnb activity and its expansion."

Levin yesterday expressed a different attitude, ordering his ministry to devise immediate measures restricting Airbnb's activity everywhere in Israel. He vigorously demanded that Airbnb's management reverse its discriminatory decision to delist apartments in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria from its website, and emphasized that the decision was an embarrassing and disgraceful surrender.

In addition, Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan called on property owners affected by the decision to consider filing lawsuits against Airbnb. He called the decision "an unfortunate decision that constitutes surrender to the anti-Semitic BDS organizations and is based on political considerations, not business ones. National conflicts exist all over the world, and the heads of Airbnb will have to explain why they chose to take a racist political stance against some Israeli citizens." Erdan added that he intended to ask the most senior levels in the US to consider whether this decision violated the anti-boycott legislation existing in over 25 US states.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 21, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Airbnb Photo: Shutterstock
Airbnb Photo: Shutterstock
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