Israel Tries to Avoid FIFA Settlement Teams Crisis, Proposes Own Solution

Proposal intended to keep FIFA from holding any discussion of the status of the West Bank and from any decision that would recognize the Palestinians’ territorial claims, says official

A soccer match in the West Bank city of Ariel, February 2017.

Israel has proposed its own solution to a dispute over six soccer teams from West Bank settlements that is supposed to be discussed by the FIFA Congress, which opens Wednesday in Bahrain. Israel sent the proposal to Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the governing body of international soccer.

An Israeli official said the proposal “wouldn’t change the status quo regarding soccer games in the settlements, but would provide a practical solution to the issue.”

The Palestinians have been pressuring FIFA and its member states since 2015 to take action against Israel over the settlement teams. Article 72.2 of the FIFA Statutes says, “Member associations and their clubs may not play on the territory of another member association without the latter’s approval,” and Palestinians say the settlement teams violate this provision. They therefore demand that Israel shut them down, and if not, they say, it should be suspended from FIFA.

The teams in question are based in Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Givat Ze’ev, the Jordan Valley and Oranit. All play in low-level leagues.

The Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Israeli proposal stemmed from Friday’s telephone conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Infantino, in which Netanyahu asked Infantino to prevent the issue of the settlement teams from even being raised at the congress.

Infantino replied that under FIFA’s bylaws, it would take a super-majority to remove an issue from the agenda. He therefore suggested that Israel instead propose its own solution to the dispute, which could be discussed by the congress together with the Palestinian motion.

On Sunday Netanyahu held consultations with officials from the Culture and Sports Ministry, Foreign Ministry, National Security Council and Israel Football Association. Following these talks, the proposal was drafted and sent to Infantino.

The Israeli official declined to divulge details of the proposal, but insisted that it maintains the status quo with regard to the settlement teams while also providing FIFA with a way out of the crisis. He said the proposal was drafted to comply with several red lines: keeping politics out of sport, keeping FIFA from holding any discussion of the status of the West Bank, and keeping FIFA from any decision that would recognize the Palestinians’ territorial claims.

The official said Netanyahu and Culture Minister Miri Regev, who also took part in the consultations, concurred that “Israel wouldn’t consent to the settlement teams ceasing to play in the Israeli association or to any decision that made a diplomatic statement.”

“The wording of our proposal enables a solution, but we don’t know if it will be accepted,” he added.

Israel fears that if it can’t either remove the issue from the agenda or get its own proposal passed, a vote will be held on the proposal drafted by an ad hoc FIFA committee set up to address the issue of the settlement teams. That committee, headed by Tokyo Sexwale, a South African anti-racism activist, proposed that FIFA give Israel six months to stop games in the settlements. If Israel fails to do so, the FIFA Council would be asked to impose sanctions on either the settlement teams or the Israel Football Association as a whole.

The Israeli official said that as part of Israel’s efforts to block the Palestinian motion at FIFA, the prime minister’s bureau asked senior American officials to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the issue during his visit to Washington last week. But despite Israel’s request, the Americans didn’t raise this issue in their talks with Abbas.

On Monday, an Israeli delegation headed by Israel Football Association Chairman Ofer Eini flew to Manama, the capital of Bahrain, to attend the FIFA Congress. The delegation was accompanied by the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, who will assist the Israeli group in the intensive negotiations they are expected to hold in Manama in the coming days. Over the past few days, Eini has spoken with the heads of several football associations worldwide and asked them to help Israel block the Palestinian effort.

"Our effort is to prevent a vote, because if there is it will be an automatic victory for the Palestinians," the senior official said. "If the president of FIFA will have the necessary resolve, he will find a solution. He has enough power and influence. He understands that if the Palestinian move succeeds it will be destructive for FIFA."