It is difficult to assess whether Airbnb’s announcement on Monday that it is going to delist rentals located in West Bank settlements is akin to the first shot fired at Lexington or to the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. This could be the beginning of a wave of success for the heretofore ineffectual BDS movement, or it could be a quick demonstration of how BDS is fated to fail. Only time will tell, but irrespective of the practical implications in the near term of Airbnb’s settlement boycott, there are a few lessons to be gleaned from the fact that Airbnb even proceeded down this path.
My hunch is that Airbnb’s move is not going to herald a forthcoming stream of copycat announcements from other companies who do business in the West Bank. In fact, I would be surprised if Airbnb does not reverse itself in relatively short order. For starters, Airbnb does not sound like it has made the decision to remove West Bank settlement listings in a confident manner. By its own admission, the company “struggled” and “wrestled” over what to do – reportedly for years – and Airbnb’s statement reads like something written by an agonized teenager who has decided to break up with his girlfriend because his friends convinced him that he should but who might change his mind after a few lonely Saturday nights. More saliently, Airbnb is going to come under enormous pressure from pro-Israel activists, the Israeli government, and various American federal and state officials. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin has already declared his intention to seek a new tax targeting Airbnb, along with measures to limit Airbnb’s activities in Israel and to promote alternative options for people seeking short term rentals. Undoubtedly members of Congress will weigh in on the issue, and twenty-five states have anti-BDS laws on the books that may allow sanctions on Airbnb for its new policy. If Airbnb was swayed after years of lobbying from groups seeking to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, it is quickly going to see that the political pressure that the other side brings to bear will be far more difficult to withstand.
I do not support governmental or corporate boycotts of Israelis, no matter where they are, so my own rooting interest is for Airbnb to reverse course. But whether or not Airbnb caves is somewhat beside the point. The critical takeaway here is that by continuing to conflate Israel and the West Bank when it comes to boycotts but quite obviously maintaining separate policies on both sides of the Green Line in other respects, the Israeli government is putting the entire enterprise at risk. It is dumbfounding to see Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan – Israel’s Inspector Clouseau, whose efforts to police thought are anything but strategic – declare following Airbnb’s decision that “there is no differentiation between this part or that part of the State of Israel,” as if the entire world does not know that Israel has different governing authorities for its pre-1967 territory and the West Bank. Insisting again and again that Tekoa is no different than Tel Aviv is not going to get skeptical parties to treat the former like the latter, but is rather going to result in those parties doing the opposite. If Israel is going to behave like its recognized territory is the same as the West Bank, despite the fact that it maintains the distinction between the two in Israeli law, then anyone who can be talked into boycotting only West Bank settlements will be easily talked into boycotting everything.
A company like Airbnb is taking what it sees as the logically fair compromise route, as illogical and unfair as that seems to many of Israel’s staunchest defenders. It is being pressured to boycott Israel entirely because of its policies in the West Bank, and so it takes a midrange approach that seeks to isolate any punitive measures solely to the territory that is problematic. If Israel is willing to go to figurative war to defend the principle that settlements and the rest of Israel are inseparable, then the logical next step for a company that is uncomfortable with doing business in the settlements is to quickly extend that discomfort to the rest of the territory that the Israel government declares is indistinguishable from settlements. That is how you take a potential threat against the settlements and expand it to encompass all of Israel. I am under no illusion that the BDS movement itself limits its boycott calls to the West Bank, but if companies inclined to limit their own boycotts to the West Bank are being told both by BDS supporters and by the Israeli government to treat all of the territory between the river and the sea identically, then it isn’t hard to see what will soon follow.
This episode also demonstrates why the Israeli government’s thinking about the two-state solution is backwards. Prime Minister Netanyahu has excised any mention of two states from his lexicon, while ministers to his right such as Naftali Bennett speak about the concept of two states as an actual threat to Israel. But the two-state solution is one of Israel’s greatest strategic assets, and a government that was truly concerned about BDS would quickly understand why. So long as Israel appears committed to the two-state concept in a real and tangible way, any moves to boycott Israel or even just the settlements will fall flat. Governments and companies just want some demonstration of Israel’s desire to not permanently occupy the West Bank, some evidence that it is looking for a way out, some sign that it is hampered by circumstances rather than by ideology. Maintaining even the legal fiction of support for two states redounds to Israel’s benefit, and were anyone to genuinely believe that this government was committed to that concept, even limited boycotts that only target settlements would not go very far. Instead, the prime minister brags about his record of standing up to the most intense pressure imaginable to lessen Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while his wannabe future defense minister tells anyone who will listen that he will annex Area C and end any ambiguity over its future status. This is precisely how one provides oxygen to a spark of settlement boycotting rather than snuffing it out. A government that does not understand the basic fact that acceptance of a two-state solution is an asset rather than a liability is one that will constantly be flummoxed by Israel’s opponents.