Between Israel and Palestine, the conflict also plays out at football grounds
In the Middle East, the conflict between Israel and Palestine doesn’t stop at the stadium doors. In recent weeks, football has even become, once again, a ground for expression. Quick summary of the facts: in early April 2015, the Palestinian Football Federation made it known though its president Jibril Rajoub that it was going to request the suspension of Israel from international competition at the next FIFA Congress in May, accusing it of “racist behaviour against Arabs”. The Palestinian authorities denounced Israel for continuing to restrict the movement of its players and employees and criticised the tight control exercised by the Israelis on importing sports equipment into Palestinian territories, including equipment sent by international bodies to help develop football in the region. Officials also protested at the creation of five Israeli football clubs on occupied land, which are participating in national championships “in violation of international law”.
Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, was quick to react. During the Confederation of African Football Congress, he opposed the Palestinian’s draft resolution on the basis that “the suspension of a federation, for any reason, is always something which harms the whole organization.”
Exclusion has never been a long-term solution. It simply puts the problem off for a while without truly addressing it, or even giving the impression of doing so. Nevertheless, at its next Congress, FIFA cannot merely put the Palestinian federation’s request to a vote, reject it and then move on to something else.
Football and its governing body cannot resolve the history and overly complex conflict between the two Middle-Eastern neighbours, but they can help to mitigate its effects. In 2013, Sepp Blatter attempted to ease tensions by setting up a task force to facilitate meetings in Palestinian territories. He invited the presidents of the two federations, Jibril Rajoub and Avi Luzon, to discuss solutions to the dispute face-to-face. The meeting never came about, but the initiative of FIFA deserves to be renewed. Two years earlier, Michel Platini had taken a hard line against Israel, threatening the federation with sanctions if its military forces continued to block imports of sports equipment into Palestine, held at the border for several weeks. The following day, Israel lifted its barriers. “Michel Platini can at times achieve more than Barack Obama”, remarked French political expert Pascal Boniface.
For international sports authorities, the line between interference and passivity is sometimes blurred. In the case of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, finding the right attitude requires infinitely more than great diplomatic skills alone. But the leading organizations of the world of sport, led by FIFA and the IOC, must exercise their power, and namely their influence in the media. Their leaders are listened to, so they must speak.