Winning a fifth term in office will be a cakewalk for FIFA’s oft-criticized president Sepp Blatter, when measured against the challenges posed to him by the looming Israeli-Palestinian showdown in world soccer’s governing body. Blatter is expected to travel to the Middle East ahead of FIFA’s May 29 congress, hoping to forge a compromise between the two rival soccer associations to head off the Palestine Football Association’s (PFA) bid to have Israel suspended from the international body. But he could struggle to keep the Middle East’s most intractable conflict out of the beautiful game.
The Palestinian resolution — which could gain significant support among member associations — is rooted in years of failed FIFA efforts to work out a mechanism between the Palestinian and Israeli soccer associations to address complaints that Israel’s occupation regime impedes the development of the Palestinian game, as well as accusations of racism in Israeli soccer.
The move clearly coincides with mounting efforts to build international pressure on Israel’s occupation now that the peace process is dormant. The movement to promote boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) borrows heavily from the tactics used to pressure apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s, and countering it is an Israeli government priority.
Palestinian soccer officials argue that previous FIFA-mediated agreements with the Israel Football Association (IFA) that involved regular consultations and a hotline to resolve problems facing Palestinian footballers at Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank have failed because the IFA has no influence on Israeli security policies. Those problems are largely related to the freedom of movement of players between Gaza and the West Bank — and within the West Bank itself — as well as on visiting foreign teams, particularly ones from the Middle East and Muslim countries.
Ironically, perhaps, Israeli diplomats lobbying against the Palestinian resolution and the IFA itself in a meeting with Blatter earlier this month have echoed that argument, saying the Israeli soccer body should not be held accountable for restrictions on Palestinian football that are not under its control.
The argument that the IFA should not be punished for the occupation is unlikely to impress PFA President Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief who spent years in Israeli prison and who sees sports as a vehicle to help end the occupation and achieve Palestinian statehood. Rajoub expects support from a significant number of FIFA member associations in Africa and Asia, as well as at least some European associations that have long been critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. He’ll need three quarters of the international body’s 209 members to carry the day.
The IFA, of course, is unable to influence security policy, but that may not sway the argument for suspension of the national soccer association of the occupying power whose policies impede Palestinian soccer. And other elements of the Palestinian case could resonate with many in FIFA. These include assertions of racism in Israeli soccer despite the fact that Palestinian citizens are among Israel’s top players, and the IFA’s inclusion of clubs from the Israeli settlements deemed illegal under international law by the U.N. Security Council. The Palestinians argue that including those clubs in the league effectively amounts to IFA endorsement of Israeli policy on the West Bank.
The IFA prides itself on being the only Middle Eastern soccer body to have an anti-racism program, and it has repeatedly slapped the knuckles of Israeli teams that have violated antidiscrimination codes — particularly Beitar Jerusalem, which is notorious for its racist fan base and refusal to hire Palestinians. The IFA has not, however, imposed sanctions of sufficient strength to dissuade Beitar from maintaining its discriminatory policies and its tolerance of fans who wear racism as a badge of honor.
The FIFA vote could be the first major litmus test of a Palestinian campaign to isolate Israel in international organizations since the breakdown of U.S.-sponsored peace talks and last summer’s Israeli military campaign in Gaza.
Ironically, FIFA was the first international organization to recognize Palestine when it admitted the PFA in 1998 — joining Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland and Hong Kong, among others, as members that are not internationally recognized sovereign nation states.
The PFA’s bid to get Israel suspended from FIFA is closely connected with the wider effort to isolate Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians, and its prospects will depend on the extent of support for that campaign.
The BDS movement was buoyed earlier this month when the Brazilian government decided not to move forward with a $2.2 billion contract with Israeli company International Security and Defense Systems (ISDS). The decision followed the cancellation late last year by the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul of a contract with Israeli company Elbit Systems to develop a major aerospace research center. Both decisions were mdae as a result of campaigns by BDS activists.
Even if the PFA fails this time around, many Israelis believe the writing is on the wall.
“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,” wrote Gershom Baskin in the Jerusalem Post.
“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.”