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Board sets up Airbnb to be blacklisted as future state investment

The website counters that it’s “not boycotting Israel.”

Administrators for the Florida State Board of Administration (SBA) have cleared the way for Airbnb, the vacation rental website, to be blacklisted as a “Scrutinized Company that Boycotts Israel” for purposes of the state’s investments.

Its transgression? Removing listings of rentals in the contentious West Bank region east of Israel, fought over by Palestinians and Israelis. Airbnb simply calls it a “disputed territory.”

John Kuczwanski, the SBA’s manager of external affairs, mentioned the proposal at a Wednesday Cabinet aides meeting, in preparation for the Cabinet meeting slated for next Tuesday.

There, state chief investment officer Ash Williams will request approval to update the Board’s “Global Governance Mandates” to add the San Francisco-based AirBnb as a “scrutinized” concern. (State statute governing the SBA defines “scrutinized companies” as those that “boycott Israel or engage in a boycott of Israel.’)

It’s more of a warning than punishment: The SBA “must divest all holdings of any scrutinized companies within 12 months” of being placed on the state’s list, but Airbnb is for now a privately held company.

The listing, however, could prevent Florida from investing in the company in the future, should it go public. The SBA, among other funds, oversees the investments of the state’s $100 billion-plus pension program.

Gov. Ron DeSantis put the website in his crosshairs after it chose to remove listings in West Bank settlements. Those areas have been under dispute; Palestinians see them as an impediment to a peace agreement between themselves and the Israelis.

DeSantis said Airbnb’s West Bank policy places it among those that support what’s known as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Meantime, Airbnb’s top in-house lawyer countered in a letter sent to the SBA last Thursday that the company “unequivocally reject(s) the BDS movement” and “is not boycotting Israel” — which goes against state law.

“Airbnb decided to stop allowing reservations in settlement in the West Bank, while continuing to allow reservations in all of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, pursuant to a global framework on disputed territories,” general counsel Robert Chesnut wrote. “This policy aligns our presence in the region with that of U.S. multinational hotels.”

Chesnut also wrote that the company’s decision regarding the West Bank affects “fewer than 1 percent of the listings in that region.”

But, at a recent South Florida news conference, DeSantis — surrounded by prominent rabbis and Jewish lawmakers — said the state has a “moral obligation to oppose the Airbnb policy.”

“It does target Jews specifically,” he added. “I think that that is wrong.”

The State Board of Administration — DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — meets as part of the regular Cabinet meeting.

Patronis, by the way, has another item on the Jan. 29 meeting’s agenda: A resolution that the state recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

___

Orlando correspondent Scott Powers and The News Service of Florida contributed to this post, republished with permission.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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