FIFA Head Vows to Fix Crisis Over Israeli Settler Teams

Palestinians are demanding soccer teams suspended, since FIFA statutes prohibit member states from establishing teams in an occupied area; 'We try to put politics aside and talk football,' says Gianni Infantino.

Players from Ariel Municipal Soccer Club, who are affiliated with Israel Football Association, train ahead of their match with Maccabi HaSharon Netanya at Ariel Municipal Soccer Club's training grounds in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel September 23, 2016.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

The president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, told a French news agency that he has made it a top priority to find a solution at next week’s council meeting in Zurich to the crisis involving Palestinian demands to suspend six Israeli teams from West Bank settlements.

“This is one of my priorities and our priorities,” Infantino, the head of soccer’s world governing body, said. “I have not yet gone into the area simply because the situation is such that at the moment the conditions are not there yet, but we’re working on it.”

The Palestinians tried at FIFA’s 2015 congress to push a decision to suspend Israel from the organization. Intensive diplomatic efforts led to a compromise in which a panel was appointed headed by Tokyo Sexwale, a former South African cabinet minister. The committee was tasked with removing restrictions of movement on Palestinian soccer players in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well as the contentious issue of reviewing the membership of six soccer teams from settlements playing in the Israeli league.

Jabril Rajoub, the chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, found a clause saying that a member country cannot establish soccer teams in an occupied area of another political entity and make them part of its own league without the consent of the political entity that country is occupying. The Israeli soccer teams that meet this criterion, Maale Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Givat Zeev, Jordan Valley and Oranit, play in Israel’s lower leagues. The Palestinians demand that FIFA apply the clause to the six teams, and to suspend Israel if it refuses to suspend them from its league.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, October 5, 2016.
AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

While the issue of restricting the movement of Palestinian soccer players has significantly improved since the committee’s establishment, there has been no progress on the other issue. In recent weeks, ahead of the FIFA Council meeting on October 13-14 in Zurich, the Palestinians have waged an international campaign pushing sanctions against Israel in FIFA regarding the West Bank teams. A senior Israeli official remarked that Sexwale’s committee is expected to submit a letter of recommendations regarding the six teams to the council for debate.

Infantino convened a special meeting on Wednesday on the West Bank teams, which Sexwale attended. Infantino said he is trying to treat the crisis as a soccer issue and not a political issue and to find a suitable solution

“We try to put politics aside and talk football and see how we can play the best conditions for football in this region,” he said. “I am always confident that with dialogue, with discussion and by talking only of sport and by leaving out the politics, we can find a solution.”

Officials in Israel fear the FIFA Council will decide to submit a decision to the May 2017 congress calling on Israel to suspend the West Bank teams. Senior officials in Jerusalem noted that Israel is trying to fend off such a decision and is conducting quiet diplomacy with a number of countries.

The National Security Council within the Prime Minister’s Office is handling the campaign to thwart Palestinian efforts against Israel in FIFA. The Foreign Ministry, the Culture Sports Ministry, the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the Israel Football Association are all involved in discussions on the matter. Over the past two weeks, dozens of Israeli ambassadors have been instructed to hold discussions with the heads of national soccer associations where they serve, as they as representatives to the FIFA Council, and to ask them to oppose Palestinian moves against Israel. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry noted that a clear picture has yet to emerge from the talks regarding the extent of support Israel can expect to receive on this issue.