Encountering Peace: FIFA, soccer and the Palestinians

"For the past two years FIFA has encouraged the Palestinians to work out their differences with Israel directly."

FIFA President Sepp Blatter with Palestinian soccer coaches (photo credit: REUTERS)
FIFA President Sepp Blatter with Palestinian soccer coaches
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In two weeks, 200 national football leagues composing the membership of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) will vote on a motion put forward by the Palestinian football association to suspend Israel’s membership in FIFA or to impose sanctions on Israel.
The Palestinian motion began two years ago when complaints were first submitted to FIFA by Palestine’s football commissioner-general, Jabril Rajoub. The Palestinian complaints against Israel included violations committed by Israel against the free movement of Palestinian soccer players between Gaza and the West Bank, the limitations placed by Israel on allowing Palestinian players to participate in games abroad, difficulties and prohibitions that Israel places on some foreign teams with regard to playing matches in Palestine (particularly Arab and Muslim teams from countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations), Israel’s less than satisfactory treatment of anti-Arab racism within the Israeli league (of particular mention are the games of Betar Jerusalem, where some fans’ “death to Arabs” calls are the norm and where news reports have indicated there is a policy not to allow any Arab players to join the team), and the existence of Israeli League members in settlements (which are illegal by international law) that are playing in the territory the Palestinians define as within the Palestinian state in violation of FIFA’s statutes.
For the past two years FIFA has encouraged the Palestinians to work out their differences with Israel directly. In a statement issued this week by the Palestinian football commissioner the following was said: “If the Israeli Association is concerned about being suspended, they should respect the FIFA Statute and stop being an integral part of the Israeli occupation and its Apartheid policies.”
Head of the Palestine Football Association (PFA) Gen. Jibril Rajoub met with FIFA president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter in Switzerland to discuss the latest meeting between FIFA and the Israeli Football Association (IFA) regarding Israeli violations of the FIFA statutes and the ongoing oppression of Palestinian athletes, which has been continuously denounced by the PFA. Rajoub accepted a request from Blatter to meet the head of the IFA after their meeting.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
Rajoub declared the following after his meeting with the IFA: “We accepted to meet with the Israeli Association in appreciation to the efforts made by FIFA chairman Sepp Blatter for the development of football in Palestine.
Unfortunately, the meeting simply reaffirmed that the Israeli Football Association does not want to stop being a tool of the Israeli occupation or to respect the FIFA statutes. It is clear that the Israeli Football Association is not willing to recognize PFA as a federation with equal rights and obligations, just as they continue to violate their commitments made before FIFA.
“We are therefore determined to continue our path to suspend the Israeli Football Association during the next FIFA Congress, this May 29. If the IFA is concerned about being suspended, they should respect the FIFA statutes and stop being an integral part of the Israeli occupation of the state of Palestine and its apartheid policies.”
Israel has denied all of the claims issued by the Palestinians, and has issued an “all hands on deck” call to all of Israel’s diplomatic representatives around the world to contest the Palestinian demands for suspension and/ or sanctions. The FIFA vote will be taken by a secret ballot which is a great cause of concern for Israel, but in order to remove Israel the vote must be won by 75 percent, which is unlikely to happen. Sanctions could be imposed by a small majority.
Whether or not the Palestinians win the vote is only secondary to the realization that this is just the beginning of the Palestinians’ diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Israel. The issue is not football or the freedom of movement of soccer players. The issue is much larger and will continue to emerge on the international stage on which Israel is now being targeted. The issue is of course the continuation of the occupation and Israel’s refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in an independent state of their own next to Israel.
Almost every nation in the world has come to the conclusion that the state of Palestine must exist and that Israel’s control over the Palestinian people must come to an end. Being that almost no one in the world sees the chance of a negotiated solution today, the international community will adopt the Palestinian position that pressure must be applied to Israel so that both the government of Israel and the people of Israel come to the conclusion that the continuation of the occupation is no longer sustainable or in Israel’s interest.
This is a conclusion that the people and government of Israel should have come to on their own out of the desire to preserve the democratic and Jewish character of the State of Israel. This is the Zionist conclusion that we, the people of Israel should understand without any international pressure. It is in our own interest to cease our rule and control over the Palestinians and to work with them to find a peaceful solution to the conflict that will provide Israel the security it needs and allow the Palestinians the independence and freedom that they deserve.
But we in Israel seem to be slow to understand this and therefore we will have to confront the growing international pressure against us. FIFA is just the beginning. More steps will be on the way including the economic boycotts that we have already seen with some European pension funds withdrawing investments in Israel, companies withdrawing from infrastructure projects in Israel, and academic and cultural boycotts. Many of those boycotts, divestments and sanctions will do little damage to Israel and their impact on the Israeli pocket will be very small. But there will be a cumulative effect. More painful for the Israeli mindset will be the actions of organizations like FIFA. Likewise, more anti-Israeli sentiment will become prevalent amongst public opinion around the world, and because Israelis love to travel so much, they will face more and more uncomfortable expressions of anger against Israel’s policies regarding Palestine.
Moreover, discussions on possible sanctions are already taking place in countries which are not only very important to Israel but are also clearly in the pro-Israel camp, such as the 28 member states of the European Union. All of the countries of the EU are deeply committed to Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy and its right to defend itself and fight against terrorism.
But these 28 countries are all deeply committed to the right of the Palestinians to have a state of their own next to Israel, the end Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians and most clearly against Israel’s settlement policies. It is the last, the continuation of Israeli building for Israelis beyond the “green line” that will push Europe in the direction of adopting sanctions against Israel.
The most hurting step could be the possibility of changing the current visa free entry policy to Europe for Israeli citizens. Unlike in the United States, Israelis are not required to get a visa prior to traveling to the 28 EU member countries. That could easily change and the Europeans could simply adopt the US policy which denies Israeli citizens the right to enter the US without a visa.
The main US reason for allowing Israelis visa-free entry is Israel’s policies of discrimination against certain US passport holders. Arab and Palestinian Americans are treated differently at Israel’s entry borders than other American passport holders. They are separated from the line, held back, questioned, searched, sometimes their computers are scanned, their contact lists and emails copied and sometimes even denied entry. The same is true for European passport holders and if the EU continues to decide to ratchet up the pressure on Israel, that kind of step will also appear.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.