Palestinian FIFA Move Hit an Israeli Nerve

The bid pushed Israel into a state of constant tension and hinted at how much BDS efforts could hurt the Israeli public; but it also displays the Palestinian Authority's logic of stagnation.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian girls hold red cards in front of an IDF soldier during a rally in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. May 29, 2015.
Palestinian girls hold red cards in front of an IDF soldier during a rally in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. May 29, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

A laywoman’s question to UEFA, the European soccer federation, and to its president, Michel Platini, who worked diligently to shelve the Palestinian bid to suspend Israel from FIFA.

Will you let Beitar Jerusalem play against European teams? This question is based on an amended Palestinian motion adopted in full at the FIFA congress relating to Israeli violations of the organization’s statutes.

After its win against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Beitar is in fact expected to play in Europe. This is the team whose coach Guy Levy said about a month ago: “Even if there was an [Arab] player who suited me professionally, I wouldn’t bring him on because it would create unnecessary tensions.”

So I ask you, Platini, how do you square Levy’s statement with Section 3 of the FIFA statutes, entitled “Non-discrimination and stance against racism”? The section states: “Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

Racial segregation in sports led to South Africa’s suspension from FIFA in 1962. The Israeli sociologist Tamir Sorek, who teaches at the University of Florida, has researched Palestinian soccer before and after 1948. He told Haaretz that in 1977, whites were asked in a South African opinion poll to name the greatest damage inflicted by apartheid. Damage to South African sports ranked No. 3.

The symbol of the outlawed racist Kahane Chai movement being held aloft by Beitar Jerusalem fans during a match against Arab team Bnei Sakhnin.Credit: Hagai Aharon / Jini

“Historians disagree on the extent sanctions in general, and in sports in particular, contributed to the downfall of the apartheid regime,” Sorek said. “But there is no doubt that the ruling party believed that the boycott was influencing public opinion.”

Michel Platini speaks to journalists during a press conference at the National Stadium in Warsaw, April 12, 2012.Credit: AP

In 1992, when leaders of the ruling National Party wanted to lay the groundwork for a regime change, a central theme in their propaganda was that a change would improve the international standing of South African athletes. Sorek added that with all the differences between the South African and Israeli violations, “if pressure builds in the future to suspend Israel from sports organizations, the public effect will be huge compared to the effect of blocking researchers’ access to funding.”

On Friday, 163 FIFA members voted in favor of the Palestinian amendment to the motion (with nine against and 37 abstaining). The headlines and reporting focused on the shelving of a resolution that would have suspended Israel from FIFA. My Haaretz colleagues Barak Ravid and Uzi Dann suggested that anybody celebrating an Israeli victory shouldn’t overdo it.

In that same spirit, I would suggest that Palestinians angry that once again a Palestinian leader has caved should learn something about how politics work.

A Palestinian insistence that FIFA vote for Israel’s suspension would have ended in failure. The head of the Palestinian soccer federation, Jabril Rajoub, could have retained a macho image and flaunted the demand to put the Palestinian resolution to a vote, just as those who fire Qassam rockets at Israel from Gaza flaunt their dubious military achievements. But the predicted defeat of the motion would have given a kosher stamp of approval to Israel’s violations.

But now, 167 delegates have affirmed in the amendment that passed: “Restrictions of Palestinian rights for the freedom of movement. Players and football officials both within and outside the borders of the occupied State of Palestine, have been systematically restricted from their right to free movement, and continue to be hindered, limited, and obstructed by a set of unilateral regulations arbitrarily and inconsistently implemented. This constitutes a direct violation by IFA of Article 13.3 of the FIFA Statute, specifically in relation to Article 13.1(i) and its correspond[ing] articles in UEFA rules.”

Commentators spoke of a yellow card against Israel, not a red card. Another hackneyed phrase — a snowball effect — would no less accurately reflect the maneuver room the Palestinian delegation managed to create.

FIFA has now appointed the equivalent of a probation officer for Israel. The establishment of a monitoring committee will enable the Palestinians to continue to pester FIFA, and it puts Rajoub under the microscope of social-media activists who will demand proof that a corrupt FIFA hasn’t bought him off.

On the other side of the front, the monitoring committee leaves Israel in a state of constant tension. Any expression of racism on the Israeli soccer field and the delaying of a soccer player at the Allenby crossing would be grounds for deliberations and possible punishment of Israel.

Since the Palestinian Authority’s infancy, Palestinian membership in FIFA and the state-like etiquette surrounding soccer games fit into the PA leadership’s efforts to present its institutions as permanent and natural: a state in the making. It’s one way to make people forget that its intended transitional political presence became permanent.

In short, the Palestinian leadership needs soccer, with its popularity, to project an air of normalcy — to maintain the PA existence and the logic of its existence.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is working in its own way to undermine this false normalcy. It’s setting the bar high for the PA. Anyone who considers himself a Palestinian leader must take this threshold into account.

Thus, Rajoub understood he had to use globally institutionalized soccer, one of the tools of Palestinian normalization, as anti-normalization leverage, and challenge the rules of the game that Israel has been imposing.

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