Florida Governor Warns Airbnb to Reverse West Bank Policy or Face State Sanctions

by | January 17, 2019 AT 7:15 AM

By David Smiley

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned Tuesday that Airbnb faces sanctions over its decision not to list properties in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, arguing that the policy is discriminatory and may violate a state law that prohibits Florida from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

Florida's State Board of Administration is preparing to present findings at the end of the month on whether the popular tourism service should be placed on a state list of scrutinized companies that boycott Israel, DeSantis said Tuesday. Administrators have not yet made a recommendation to the SBA's board of trustees, which is composed of Florida's governor, attorney general and chief financial officer.

DeSantis said he hopes Airbnb will make the controversy moot by reversing its position. But Florida's new governor also made clear during a visit to the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County's Boca Raton headquarters Tuesday that he believes Airbnb's policy regarding the West Bank -- which he referred to as "the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria" -- is anti-Semitic, and said the company is dangerously close to making it onto Florida's "hit list."

"We have a moral obligation to oppose the Airbnb policy. It does target Jews specifically. I think that's wrong," said DeSantis, who declared Tuesday that state employees will no longer be reimbursed for stays at Airbnb properties while on government business. "Airbnb claims it's a company of inclusion and yet this policy only affects Jews who have homes on the West Bank. It doesn't appear to apply to anyone else on the face of the earth."

In announcing in November that it would not list roughly 200 homes in Israeli settlements, the popular home-sharing platform explained that it was uncomfortable doing business in an occupied territory subject to a historical dispute between Palestinians and Israelis. Much of the world considers Israel's West Bank settlements, built on land Israel claimed in the 1967 war, to be a violation of international law. The United Nations considers the West Bank an occupied territory.

Airbnb denied Tuesday that it is anti-Semitic, or that it has discriminated against Jews.

Spokesman Ben Breit said Airbnb has "unequivocally rejected" the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement that aims to undercut Israel's government by starving it financially, and remains "deeply committed" to thousands of hosts in the country.

"We have worked with the Florida State Board of Administration on this matter," Breit said. "We remain committed to the more than 45,000 Airbnb hosts in Florida who share their homes with over 4.5 million visitors, and we'll continue to do all we can to support our community."

Breit did not address the West Bank policy, or say whether it will change course.

The ignominy of becoming the first company of note to make it to Florida's scrutinized list could be damaging to Airbnb's business in the state, if not the country. Florida law was amended last year so that any company on the list becomes ineligible to enter into contracts of any amount with local governments, potentially jeopardizing deals like the memorandum of understanding that allows Airbnb to operate legally in Miami-Dade County. It also prohibits the state's massive pension fund from investing in listed companies, a possible complication as Airbnb leadership ponders whether to take the company public.

"That would not be good, if you're already on Florida's hit list before you even got off the ground," said DeSantis, who also announced Tuesday that he is planning a trip to Israel and that he's pushing to make $2 million in annual security funding for Jewish day schools a recurring expense in the state budget.

The announcements follow a campaign during which DeSantis frequently touted his support for Florida's Jewish community. While a member of Congress, DeSantis attended the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. He said during his inauguration speech last week that he was baptizing his son, Mason, with water his wife had bottled from the Sea of Galilee during their most recent trip to the Middle East.

DeSantis was also harshly critical of Airbnb's November decision to de-list roughly 200 properties in the West Bank over concerns about the historical dispute between Palestinians and Israel over the Israeli-occupied territory. DeSantis, at the time the governor-elect, said he would look into what action his administration could take if Airbnb didn't reverse its decision.

State Rep. Randy Fine, who co-sponsored a bill last year to stiffen penalties for sanctioned companies, said sanctions "could have devastating consequences for Airbnb." Fine, the only Jewish Republican in the state Legislature and the head of the DeSantis campaign's Jewish outreach efforts, called the West Bank policy "a massive mistake of epic proportions -- a potentially company-ending mistake."

Airbnb says it has more than 20,000 Israeli hosts and listings in Jerusalem, and has invested millions in Israel in support of its business. Reservations in the West Bank represented only a fraction of its revenue in the region, the company stated when it announced two months ago that it was pulling out of the West Bank. The company also notes that it previously pulled out of the Crimea region after Russia invaded Ukraine.

"Airbnb is not boycotting Israel," the company stated, explaining that it decided to de-list West Bank properties due to the disputed nature of the territory.

DeSantis, however, argued that there is no dispute over Israel's right to settle the West Bank. And Florida law warns that companies can be sanctioned for limiting their activities in Israeli-occupied territories if it's done in a discriminatory matter. The company, meanwhile, has been sued in federal court over allegations that its West Bank prohibition is religious discrimination.

A previous version of this story stated that the State Business Administration is planning to recommend that Airbnb be sanctioned. The administration has not yet made a recommendation.

(c)2019 Miami Herald