Learning from the Messi mess?

What Israel – and Miri Regev – can take away from the canceled Argentina game as Eurovision planning continues.

Lionel Messi and Netta Barzilai (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lionel Messi and Netta Barzilai
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Could the Eurovision song contest go the route of the Argentina-Israel soccer match?
As Israelis are still reeling from news of the game’s cancellation, local music fans are worried what it means for the upcoming singing competition. Is Israel too risky a destination for international events and is the BDS movement just too strong?
Within hours of Netta Barzilai winning this year’s contest in Lisbon, internal political squabbling and external calls for concern or even boycott had already begun. While Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that the event will be held in Jerusalem, the European Broadcasting Union has said that no such decision has been made.
But should the cancellation of the soccer game be a sign of concern over the Eurovision? The short answer is no – but the long answer is a solid maybe.
At face value, you can’t compare the Argentina-Israel match to the Eurovision. The former was a friendly, no-stakes match, mutually scheduled by the two teams. Hosting the Eurovision, on the other hand, was earned by Israel with its win last month. Each year’s competition is hosted by the previous year’s winner, unless – like Israel did in 1980 – it chooses not to do so. The country – and the ultimate host city – must meet the EBU’s requirements for a venue, accommodations and infrastructure. But while Argentina can easily cancel a match in Israel, the Eurovision cannot be simply snatched away from Israel. The EBU would have to prove Israel is unable or unfit to host the competition, which will not be an easy feat.
Despite the rumors and reports flying about next year’s competition, the EBU has given no indication it intends to do so. In official statements, the organization has noted that a host city and date have not been selected yet, and it is currently working with Israel’s public broadcaster to do so. Even in off-the-record conversations with Hebrew media outlets, EBU officials have never expressed a desire to host the contest in another country.
But that doesn’t mean there are no causes for concern. And it also doesn’t mean that the cancellation this week of the Argentina game can’t be instructional – for the country as a whole and for Culture Minister Miri Regev in particular.
Many have blamed the soccer match cancellation on the culture minister, who insisted that the game be moved from Haifa to Jerusalem. The decision to the move the game prompted intensified outrage from the Palestinians and other groups.
Despite being blamed by many for the cancellation, Regev refused to back down on Thursday and seems determined to paint the Eurovision with a political brush.
Regev gave a defiant interview to Kan’s Reshet Bet radio station, where she proclaimed that if the Eurovision can’t be held in Jerusalem, it shouldn’t be hosted in Israel at all.
And herein lies the problem. Regev can go around proclaiming whatever she wants, but it won’t help the cause. And while there haven’t been any polls to this effect, I’m fairly certain most Israelis would rather host the Eurovision in Tel Aviv or Haifa than give it up entirely. The culture minister said hosting the contest serves to present the beautiful face of Israel as an exciting destination for the world, and she’s right. But we don’t turn tourists away if they say they’re only going to visit Eilat and not Jerusalem; in fact, the Tourism Ministry subsidizes airlines who add flights directly to Eilat.
Neither the Argentina match nor the Eurovision contest are political events, and the government shouldn’t treat them as such. Regev’s insistence on holding the game in Jerusalem, and her reported demands to take a photo with Messi may or may not have been factors in the cancellation, but they were inappropriate nevertheless. Israeli sports and music fans are excited about the prospect of holding international events in Israel, and they are less than moved by political intervention.
Israel gets to choose the host city for the Eurovision, but the EBU needs to approve it as viable, safe and secure. There’s no question that there will be threats and security concerns surrounding the Eurovision contest; during this year’s live show two men jumped on stage while the UK’s SuRie was performing and grabbed her microphone. Hosting such an event in Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel will require an intense security operation. Instead of making grandiose claims and threats, Regev and other officials should be ensuring that the contest – wherever it ends up – can go ahead in a smooth, safe and enjoyable fashion.