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UN resolution on Israeli settlements puts Airbnb in a tight bind

Airbnb has attracted its fair share of criticism for listing Israeli homes in the Palestinian West Bank, land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War.

Until recently, the San Francisco company could keep its distance from the controversy, as long as the situation remained at impasse. Given recent events, however, Airbnb and other companies that directly or indirectly do business in those settlements can no longer hide under the cloak of ambiguity.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution strongly condemning Israel for the West Bank settlements.

Fourteen countries, including major powers like Russia, China, Great Britain and France, signed the resolution. But what made the move especially notable was that the United States, Israel’s strongest ally, abstained. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States could have killed the resolution through a veto but chose not to exercise the right.

In addition, President-elect Donald Trump has promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would grant American recognition to Israel’s claim to the city. The Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital.

A spokesman for Israel’s Embassy in Washington directed me to a top official with the country’s consulate in San Francisco. The official did not return a request for comment.

The U.N. Security Council resolution is especially significant because it effectively legitimizes the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement, a controversial campaign to pressure companies to cut ties with Israel for supporting the settlements.

“It gives tremendous impetus to that movement,” said Robert Amsterdam of the Amsterdam & Partners law firm in Washington and London, who specializes in international criminal law. “The companies that do business in the occupied territories face a great risk.”

Over the years, Israel has been building settlements in the West Bank, defying U.N. resolutions that state such activity is illegal because international law considers the territory occupied land.

Companies like European banking group Dexia and U.S. real estate firm ReMax have run into trouble because they were conducting business with the settlements.

“I strongly encourage all business to exercise due diligence to ensure they do not contribute to human rights violations and abuse, and in order to avoid responsibility for complicity in breaches of international law,” U.N. special investigator Richard Falk wrote in a 2013 report on foreign companies operating in the occupied territories.

Groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace in Oakland, which supports the boycott movement, have heavily criticized Airbnb for listing homes in West Bank territory seized by Israel nearly 50 years ago.

Airbnb did not respond to a request for comment. The company previously said that the issue is complex and that “a hospitality company from San Francisco isn’t going to have all the answers.”

Critics have also hit Bay Area companies like PayPal in San Jose, which conducts payment transactions for Israeli settlers, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Palo Alto, which makes the high-tech identification cards Israel uses to operate checkpoints throughout the West Bank.

In September 2015, SodaStream closed a factory it had built in a West Bank settlement.

Over the years, the U.N. Security Council has passed resolutions condemning the settlements, sometimes with American support. But the most recent resolution, approved Friday, was perhaps the harshest yet.

In addition to arguing that the settlements lack “legal validity,” language the U.N. has previously used, the resolution explicitly states that Israel’s policy “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

That new phrase is what should worry companies, Amsterdam said.

“The language couldn’t be stronger,” he said.

Amsterdam, who is a strong critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, calls the resolution “a reckless move” and “off the rails.” He argues that the resolution now makes negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians all but impossible.

“It’s hard to see the upside to this,” Amsterdam said.

Especially for companies like Airbnb, which can no longer duck behind platitudes.

Thomas Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: tlee@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByTomLee


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