The Palestinian Authority has a new goal in its efforts to isolate Israel internationally: a ban from world soccer.
The head of FIFA, the Swiss-based international soccer federation, arrived in Israel on Tuesday for meetings aimed at resolving the simmering sports conflict, which may resonate more with Israeli sports fans than Palestinian efforts to use the United Nations or the International Criminal Court to back Israel into a diplomatic corner.
FIFA President Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, however, said he was hopeful that he could find some resolution that would satisfy both sides.
"I remain confident that we will find a solution for the benefit of football development,” Blatter said in a statement posted on FIFA's website after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Football shall connect people and not divide people,” he said earlier as he headed into the meeting.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Israel and the Palestinian territories, although neither can claim great success in international competition.
Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian politician and current head of the Palestinian Football Assn., has been campaiging for two years to suspend Israel from FIFA. His proposal is scheduled for a vote in the FIFA's 65th congress convening in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 29.
In a column published in Britain's Guardian newspaper, Rajoub called on FIFA to uphold its anti-discrimination policy and suspend Israel, citing heavy government restrictions and even attacks on Palestinian athletes.
“While Israel continues to participate in FIFA matches internationally with impunity, Palestinian football players have been shot and arrested, our football association raided by Israeli army forces,” wrote Rajoub.
According to Rajoub, the Palestinian clubs were frequently barred from bringing players, coaches and even materials from abroad. Israeli restrictions of movement imposed on players and staff have “turned the game into a real act of resistance,” he said.
The recent inclusion of the Palestinian request in next week’s congress prompted an 89-minute diplomatic scramble on the part of Israel, which in recent weeks tapped diplomats and soccer officials around the world to resolve the crisis and lobby against its expulsion.
It was unclear whether a majority would be found in favor of the Palestinian motion that could boot Israel from the game. The Palestinians would be willing to withdraw the request if Israel lifted restrictions keeping players from moving freely between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as to and from the Palestinian territories.
Although Israel's High Court issued an advisory saying that passage for athletes should be more favorably weighed than for other Palestinians, they nevertheless have faced restrictions. The army allowed most of a large team of runners from Gaza to participate in a Bethlehem marathon in March, but it barred the beach soccer team from traveling to a qualifying match in China the same month, according to the Israeli advocacy group Gisha.
“Sport is a vehicle of goodwill among nations,” Netanyahu told Blatter on Tuesday as the two met in his Jerusalem office. Stressing that Israel was already acting on several of FIFA’s concerns to assist Palestinian football and prepared to discuss further ways of helping, Netanyahu cautioned that introducing politics to the international association could destroy it.
“You politicize it once with Israel, then you politicize it for everyone and it will cause the deterioration of a great institution,” Netanyahu said, as he welcomed Blatter “in the spirit of un-politicized sport.”
Such a suspension would not be unprecedented, however. Apartheid-era South Africa was suspended by FIFA, as well as much of the rest of the international sports community.
Blatter was to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday.
In addition to restrictions on Palestinian soccer players, Rajoub’s petition cited discrimination and racism against Arab Israeli players on Israeli club teams. Although soccer provides an equalizing platform for Jews, Arabs and other minorities within Israel, racism on the field remains a problem.
Jerusalem’s Beitar soccer club has suffered repeatedly from a fringe group of fans that are rowdy and openly racist; most recently, the Israel Football Assn. penalized the club and deducted league points that could keep it from trying to qualify for European games.
Rotem Kemer, chief executive of the Israel Football Assn., told reporters Tuesday that Israeli soccer was promoting cooperation, not undermining it. He said Palestinian efforts to single out Israel was “cynical.”
As for movement restrictions, Kemer said that 90% of the requests made for Palestinian players’ passage in 2015 were approved by the government but that security considerations and decisions were out of the soccer association's hands.
In recent years FIFA has increased mechanisms to eradicate racism and discrimination, and if Israel survives the current crisis, it will have to comply with anti-discrimination standards that will factor into qualifying for the next World Cup.
In December 2014, Cypriot football association President Costakis Koutsokoumnis, who was appointed by FIFA to monitor Israel’s implementation of guidelines for mobility of Palestinian footballers, reported that some progress was made but not enough.
For more than a decade, the Israel Football Assn. has engaged in a joint program with the New Israel Fund called “Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football.”
In a letter this week, fund director Rachel Liel urged Blatter to not suspend Israel, where despite the troubled reality, the inclusive sport offered “fertile soil for coexistence” between Arabs and Jews.
“It would be a tragedy for FIFA, which seeks to bring peace and to eliminate racism, to find itself at the end of the day lighting a racist bonfire,” she wrote.
A FIFA ban could keep Israeli teams from playing in international competition. However, if recent history is any guide, FIFA is not likely to change the fortunes of the Israeli national team in World Cup competition. The last time Israel qualified for the World Cup was in 1970, when it came in last in its group and didn't win a match.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.