Israel and Palestine play high stakes soccer
Israel and Palestine are playing political soccer with Palestinian football as the ball. The stakes for Israel are far higher than for Palestine. Israel is effectively on probation as it seeks to definitively defeat Palestinian efforts to persuade world soccer body FIFA to suspend Israeli membership as part of a broader Palestinian campaign to isolate the Jewish state in international organizations.
Israel narrowly evaded suspension in May as a result of an intensive lobby campaign that convinced the Palestinians to withdraw a resolution at a FIFA congress in exchange for Israeli concessions. FIFA agreed to appoint a commission that would oversee Israeli implementation of its promises to ease restrictions that inhibit the development of Palestinian soccer. The committee is supposed to regularly report back to FIFA’s executive committee. In talks with FIFA president Sepp Blatter in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu proposed to give Palestinian players special identity cards and placing sports liaison officials at crossings between Palestinian areas and those under Israeli control to ease movement. He further suggested a special escort service between Gaza and the West Bank to allow players to cross between the two territories that are separated by Israeli territory.
Israel appeared to be living up to its promises when it granted, last week for the first time in 15 years, a West Bank team, Hebron’s Al Ahli, passage to Gaza to play a Palestine Cup final against the strip’s Al Shejaia. Hopes that this signalled a new beginning were however dashed when the Palestine Football Association (PFA) cancelled the return match in Hebron that had been scheduled for last Sunday after Israel agreed to grant passage to 33 of the 37 players planning to travel from Gaza to Hebron. Israel demanded that the four remaining players present themselves to security authorities for questioning after which Israel would decide whether they would be allowed to travel. The incident sparked a war of words with Israel and Palestine trading barbs in the wake of the match’s cancellation. Each side accused the other of playing politics.
Although there is little doubt that there is enough blame to go round, Israel’s insistence on the questioning of the players is likely to be widely seen as Mr. Netanyahu backtracking on his promises. A majority of FIFA members agree that Israel puts unreasonable obstacles in the path of Palestinian soccer, including restrictions on travel between the West Bank and Gaza as part of its sanctions against Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the territory, and on travel of Palestinian teams to third countries as well as visits by foreign squads to the West Bank.
The cancellation of the match comes amid Israel’s increasing isolation in seeking to pre-empt the conclusion of a controversial agreement with Iran that would end the nuclear crisis. Significant segments of Israeli and American Jewish society fear that Israel risks damaging its most important diplomatic and military relationship with the United States.
Israel’s international isolation increased when Gulf states who eye the agreement with varying degrees of suspicion earlier this month declared their cautious support for the accord. The Gulf move, left Israel alone in opposing the agreement at a time that its policies towards the West Bank and Gaza are encountering mounting international criticism and a series of racist and discriminatory attacks against Palestinians and pro-gay activists have sparked soul-searching in Israel itself.
Living up to Mr. Netanyahu’s promises to ease restrictions on Palestinian soccer would have earned Israel brownie points. The problem for Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s nationalist right-wing is that sticking to the prime minister’s promises would have constituted evidence that Israel whether governed by the right or the left is capable when pushed of mustering the political will to take steps it had earlier rejected on security grounds.
As a result, Israel’s backtracking on Mr. Netanyahu’s promises is likely to be seen by many in FIFA as one more example of Israeli intransigence. No doubt, Palestine is playing football with Palestinian soccer. Scoring political points proved to be more important than letting a soccer match proceed. Nevertheless, in the overall climate of mounting criticism of Israel, Palestine is likely to win its high stakes political match against Israel if Israel fails to wisen up and pick its battles more carefully.