Immediately after Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub announced the Palestinians were withdrawing their proposal to suspend Israel from FIFA and stepped down from the congress' stage in Zurich, the entire debate regarding the event turned into an embarrassment.
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For a few minutes, FIFA President Sepp Blatter tried with little success to explain to the hundreds of delegates present what exactly they will be voting on. It is doubtful if the wheelers and dealers representing the soccer associations of Zambia, New Caledonia, Lichtenstein – or any other of the 200 countries sitting in the hall – had any real understanding of what their colleagues from the Middle East were up in arms about.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ran a diplomatic war room from the Rimonim Hotel in the city of Safed where he is vacationing with his family, can be pleased and claim another tactical win for himself. While Netanyahu feared he would be pummeled by multiple goals, he managed to walk away with a respectable draw.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian demand to suspend Israel from FIFA has been dropped from the docket. On the other hand, the predominantly justified claims of the Palestinian Authority against Israel regarding the restrictions it imposes on Palestinian soccer does remain on FIFA's agenda.
The compromise reached between Israel and the Palestinians dictates the establishment of an international committee headed by FIFA to oversee Israel's treatment of Palestinian soccer players from the West Bank and Gaza. The committee will also look into the Palestinians' claims of racism against Arabs in Israeli soccer. Sadly, in this regard too, the Palestinians claims are not without merit.
What went down this Friday in Zurich should be no cause for celebration for Israel's government. To extend the soccer metaphor: FIFA gave Israel a yellow card. The Palestinians sounded the majority of their claims some two years ago, and Israel did little to address them. The result was that Israel was pulled into a redundant struggle within FIFA which only did damage to its international standing and further strained its image in the West. If Israel again fails to address claims of restrictions on Palestinian players' movements, it will find itself on the defense next year as well, playing bunker once more in FIFA's congress.
But the struggle in the last few weeks in FIFA should be a warning sign to the Israeli government in a much larger context. The diplomatic stalemate, the continued construction in the Israeli settlements and other facets of the occupation in the West Bank are fodder for the Palestinian strategy of isolating Israel and making it a pariah state. Israel has so far succeeded in blocking most of the moves against it, but as time goes by the task becomes increasingly difficult.
It was not for naught that Rajoub floated the demand to let the UN decide on the issue of the status of five settlement-based soccer teams that play in the Israeli league. The Palestinians understand the settlements are Israel's worst diplomatic vulnerability. While most of the world opposes suspending Israel from FIFA, the demand to suspend teams from the settlements, deemed illegal by most of the international community, has much better odds of being accepted.
The test for the five teams from the settlements will not pass to the United Nations, however. It will be handled by a committee that FIFA will establish. It is hard to predict whether the committee will issue practical recommendations on this issue to FIFA's executive committee, although this will be another brick in the wall that the Palestinians and the international committee are building between Israel within 1967 lines and the settlements. What happened in the European Union two years ago with the science cooperation agreement with Israel - "Horizon 2020" - has passed on to soccer and will continue in other axes.
One of the heroes of the fight against the Palestinian FIFA maneuver was the head of the Israel Football Association Ofer Eini. The wheeler-dealer from Israel's Histadrut labor federation stood out as a smart and creative diplomat. He killed Rajoub's initiative softly. He took the sting out of it with a charm offensive, moderate talk and handshakes. After his performance at FIFA, maybe Netanyahu should consider giving him the foreign affairs portfolio.