Netanyahu in Call to FIFA President: Drop Palestinian Bid to Sanction Settlement Teams

Netanyahu's office asked U.S. officials to raise the FIFA bid while Abbas was in Washington, but they didn't, Israeli official says

The Ariel Municipal Soccer Club and Maccabi HaSharon Netanya play against each other in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, September 23, 2016.
Amir Cohen, Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the president of FIFA, the international soccer association, to remove a Palestinian motion for sanctions against six Israeli teams in West Bank settlements from the agenda of FIFA’s upcoming congress.

Netanyahu spoke with Gianni Infantino by telephone over the weekend. The FIFA Congress will open in Bahrain on Wednesday.

The phone call took place at the behest of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, who even wrote a letter to the prime minister, warning him about the Palestinian soccer move.

An Israeli official said that Netanyahu stressed to the FIFA leader during their roughly half-hour chat that sports and politics shouldn't be mixed. "The Palestinian conflict is long term and FIFA isn't going to solve it," Netanyahu told Gianni Infantino.

Netanyahu also argued that the chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, is pushing FIFA's move against Israel in order to leverage it for political purposes, in anticipation of the day Mahmoud Abbas leaves the Palestinian leadership.

"If the decision against the teams from the settlements passes, it will make sports a source of division, instead of a source of conflict resolution. It could ruin FIFA," Netanyahu told Infantino. 

Two Israeli officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said Netanyahu has also asked the leaders of several countries to urge the heads of their local soccer associations to act toward removing this issue from the agenda. In addition, they said, Israeli ambassadors in dozens of countries have spoken to government officials and directly to the soccer association heads, arguing that politics should be kept out of sports.

Tokyo Sexwale, foreground, FIFA's mediator or Israeli-Palestinian soccer dispute, in front of the separation barrier on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 7, 2015.
AP

One of the officials said Netanyahu’s office even asked senior American officials to press Palestinian President Abbas over this issue when he visited Washington last week. Israel had hoped American pressure might lead Abbas to order Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, to drop his efforts to advance the motion at the FIFA Congress.

Nevertheless, the Israeli official said that "we understand that the Palestinian bid at FIFA wasn't raised by the American side during the Abbas talks."

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador in Washington, said that “There is nothing to be discussed about the action in the FIFA.”

“It is not against Israel within its internationally recognized boundaries. It is to protect our natural right to develop sports for our talented youth in our territories. It is to ensure mutual respect, and uphold the great values and regulations of international sports, by all member states including us and Israel.”

On Monday, Israel Football Association Chairman Ofer Eini will fly to Manama, the capital of Bahrain, to attend the congress. Though the FIFA Congress only begins on Wednesday, the FIFA Council is slated to meet on Tuesday to determine the congress’ final agenda, including which resolution on the settlement teams, if any, will be put to a vote. If a vote is actually held, Israel’s chances of winning it are slim.

AFP

Last-ditch effort at resolving dispute

Also on Tuesday, a three-way meeting is slated to take place in Manama between Eini, Rajoub and Tokyo Sexwale, who heads the FIFA committee that has been dealing with this issue. The meeting is supposed to be a last-ditch effort to resolve the dispute, but Rajoub is considered unlikely to agree to any compromise at this point. The Israeli official said this is why Israel has been lobbying FIFA officials and the heads of major soccer associations like those in Germany, Italy and Spain.

Jerusalem fears that if the issue isn’t removed from the agenda, the congress will likely vote on the motion that Sexwale, a South African, favors, under which Israel would be given six months to halt soccer games in the settlements. If Israel failed to do so, the issue would return to the FIFA Council, which would then be asked to approve sanctions against either the six settlement teams or the Israel Football Association as a whole.

The Palestinians have been pressing FIFA for action against Israel since 2015. 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.” The Palestinians say the six settlement teams violate this provision, and that if Israel doesn’t shut these teams down, it ought to 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.