Blunder ‘n’ bereavement: 8 things to know for December 18
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Blunder ‘n’ bereavement: 8 things to know for December 18

Airbnb and the Tourism Ministry took reporters and others on a wild ride, and it might be a long, long time until it’s clear; plus Israel mourns the wife of its first rocket man

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks during an event in San Francisco, on February 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks during an event in San Francisco, on February 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

1. Errbnb: What exactly is going on with Airbnb and its West Bank settlement policy? Like a slow motion train wreck, the Israeli press went from reporting that Airbnb would not implement its announced policy banning settlement vacation home listings, to reporting that Airbnb denied it was doing any such thing, to some sort of muddled compromise in between.

  • The mess seems to have begun Monday evening when the Tourism Ministry sent out a press release saying that Airbnb had agreed to not implement its West Bank policy. Minutes later, a statement purporting to be from Airbnb in Hebrew was sent out using near identical language. Some reporters got the statement directly from a local PR person who has worked with Airbnb in the past (there is no full-time Airbnb Israel flack), and some (like ToI) got it from the Tourism Ministry.
  • Hebrew press immediately reported the statement as coming from Airbnb, and it did indeed come from Yuval Lidor, a local media consultant who works with Airbnb. The only problem? The statement was crafted in a way that threw up several red flags, including getting the name of Airbnb policy chief Chris Lehane wrong (it called him Chris Lanahan), and had none of the official imprimatur of Airbnb’s previous statements.
  • Unsurprisingly, within hours, the actual Airbnb mothership, clearly trying to contain a situation quickly spiraling out of control, issued a statement saying that the Israeli reports were false (likely those referring to its move as a reversal), and said it was continuing to develop tools to implement the policy decision.
  • Lidor later appeared to walk back his original announcement, asking The Times of Israel to refer exclusively to the English press release from Nick Papas — the one that appeared to deny that Airbnb had changed its mind. Papas has since told ToI that Lidor’s statement on behalf of the company had been “sent in error.”

2. What’s clear is that nothing is clear, and Airbnb’s silence isn’t really helping matters.

3. Sticking to the narrative: But despite what may have seemed like a pretty clear rebuffing of the Israeli claims, many Israeli news sites are continuing to report that Airbnb has reversed its decision, noting that the English statement is non-committal about actually implementing the decision and declares a strong stance against the BDS movement (though boycotting the West Bank is not really BDS).

  • On Tuesday morning, Army Radio papers over the English statement and repeats several times Tourism Minister Yariv Levin’s comment that Airbnb’s move is a step in the right direction.
  • In contrast, most international news sites lead their reports with Airbnb denying the Israeli claims of a U-turn. The truth may be somewhere in the middle, where Airbnb is in fact planning on quietly allowing the settlement listings to stay while not officially changing its policy, in which case the press statement did nothing to help matters.
  • Barak Ravid of Channel 10 news and Axios reports that Lehane will meet again with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin Tuesday and cites officials at the company telling him that Airbnb “will continue the dialogue with the Israeli government before deciding whether to keep the policy or change it.”
  • He also says Airbnb appeared to backtrack after Levin conveyed “tough messages” to Lehane, though it’s unclear what type of threats Israel could make and actually back up.

4. Eating words: The roller coaster took many pro-Israel activists along for the ride, like Shmuley Boteach, who sent out a mass email celebrating the U-turn and crediting an ad he placed in the Washington Post.

  • Shurat Hadin, an Israeli law center that is suing Airbnb over the ban, first crowed about Airbnb “eating its words” and credited its legal action, but was forced just a few minutes later to do the same.
  • “We would hope that initial reports suggesting they have walked-back their discriminatory policy are correct. Otherwise we will see them in court,” Shurat Hadin president Nitsana Darshan-Leitner says in a second statement.

5. Remembering Rona: But Airbnb delisting or not delisting is small potatoes in Israel compared to the death of Rona Ramon, widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and mother of fighter pilot Asaf Ramon, who died in a training accident in 2009.

  • Ramon, who died of cancer at 54, was not a major public figure, though she funneled her twin tragedies into work to perpetuate the memories of her husband and son and to help others deal with loss, and she is widely mourned and remembered by politicians, public figures, pundits and everyone in between.
  • A sign of how well-regarded she was despite not being a major figure can be seen in the amount of coverage afforded her. All of Israel’s main newscasts led off with extended segments about her, instantly transporting the nation back to the melancholy of 2003 as white streaks raced across a clear blue sky over the southern US and the country knew its hero was lost.
  • Israel’s major newspapers also devote extended space to Ramon, with Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth both devoting their first eight pages to the story. (Haaretz goes to the other extreme, with only a front page refer and a smallish story on page 10.)
  • “Rona was the personification of the dream of generations: An erect and modest Israeli, full of pleasantness and brusqueness together, determined to give and to build the land into a good place, someone who loved people. We didn’t get enough of you Rona. The days were short and we already miss you,” former minister Shai Piron writes in Yedioth Ahronoth.
  • Why all the attention for someone who was only occasionally in the spotlight? Part of it may be a special Israeli/Jewish obsession with mourning, especially for military men. One needs only to look at the mythical status given Miriam Peretz, who lost two sons in wars, to see it.
  • Another is the fact as a small country, Ilan Ramon was arguably the biggest national hero of them all, above all the politicians, and generals and scientists. He first became a hero as a fighter pilot who took part in the famous bombing of the Osirak nuclear facility in Iran and then as Israel’s first man in space, and his tragic death aboard the Columbia in 2003 only seemed to heighten his renown, with schools and other institutions around the country named in his memory. A new airport in southern Israel is set to open in the coming months named for Ramon and son Asaf.

6. Shadowed by death: Even in death, though, Ramon cannot escape the shadow of those tragedies, and her life is remembered in terms of the pain she went through and her ability to cope with the losses, with their seemingly as many pictures of Ilan Ramon as of Rona.

  • “The woman who would not give up,” reads a top headline in Israel Hayom.
  • “Through the pain you made the hardest choice of all, you chose life,” writes Lihi Lapid in Yedioth, a friend of Rona’s (and wife of politician Yair Lapid).
  • Retired general Roni Polk, who knew the Ramons from the air force days, recalls in Israel Hayom her hurt during the funeral for her son Asaf, buried next to his father: “Anyone who heard her eulogy will never forget it. ‘My Asaf, that’s my grave! That’s my place! You were supposed to bury me as an old and loved lady with millions of grandchildren.’”
  • It seems those plans have changed quite drastically. On Tuesday, several Israeli media outlets report that Ramon will be cremated, to avoid her family having to go through yet another funeral.
  • On Wednesday, her coffin will be at the Peres Center in Jaffa for mourners from the public to pay their respects.

7. ‘I will wait for you’: One strange byproduct of Ramon’s death is the sudden return to the airwaves of the Israeli standard “Zemer Noga” by poet Rachel, which Rona chose to have played for Ilan while he was on the Columbia. Since her death Monday evening, snippets of the song have been played on near constant repeat.

  • Yedioth Ahronoth quotes the melancholy song on its front cover, above a picture of Rona, Ilan and Asaf on a bike in the US. “My last day/may be close/may be close/the day of farewell tears/I will wait for you/until my light will die.”
  • While the song has been covered countless times, the most famous (and the one sent into space) is by folk supergroup The High Windows from 1967.

8. Dig deeper: Things may be heating up on the northern border.

  • Monday saw a brief tiff between Israeli and Lebanese troops over a fence being put up, and UNIFIL peacekeepers confirmed the existence of two tunnels dug under the Israeli border that violate UN Resolution 1701.
  • The Lebanese daily al-Akhbar reports that Israel is trying to convince the US to withhold aid money to Lebanon to get it to help uncover tunnels on the northern side of the border. According to the report, citing unnamed Western officials, UNIFIL doesn’t want to do the work itself, fearing tensions with locals.
  • Haaretz reports that Israel is preparing an even bigger PR push against Hezbollah, as it seeks international leverage for an even bigger military operation against the terror group.
  • “Israel is preparing for a public relations battle to halt Iran’s effort to build precision-missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The tunnels, which betray Hezbollah’s belligerent intentions, make it easier to convey the message on the missile issue as well, which Hezbollah considers even more important. Second, in the background is always the possibility that future tension with Hezbollah – especially surrounding the missile factories – will lead to war,” Amos Harel writes in the paper.
  • The tunnels are expected to come up Wednesday when the Security Council discusses the region.
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