Israel Fighting to Stop FIFA From Suspending Settlement Soccer Teams

Move against six teams initiated by Palestinians, backed by FIFA panel; Israelis pessimistic

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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.
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.Credit: AP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Israel is increasingly concerned that when the FIFA Congress holds its annual meeting in another four weeks, the international soccer federation will decide to suspend six Israeli soccer teams based in West Bank settlements.

Consequently, ambassadors in dozens of capitals worldwide have been ordered to work with officials of their host countries to foil the move.

An official involved in the issue said that two weeks ago, Israel learned that Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub had asked to put the issue of the settlement teams on the agenda of both the FIFA Council, which will meet in Manama, Bahrain on May 9, and the FIFA Congress, which will meet in the same city on May 10 and 11.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry sent a cable to dozens of Israeli embassies instructing embassy staffers to try to persuade their host countries to remove the issue from FIFA’s agenda or ensure that no vote on it takes place. But the official said Israel must be prepared for the worst-case scenario, in which a vote does take place. If so, Israel’s chances of winning are negligible.

“Our growing assessment is that the FIFA Congress is liable to make a decision on suspending six Israeli teams that play over the Green Line, or even on suspending Israel from FIFA,” the cable said. “We urge you to contact your countries’ representatives on the FIFA Council as soon as possible to obtain their support for Israel’s position, which rejects mixing politics with sport and calls for reaching an agreed solution between the parties ... and to thwart an anti-Israel decision if it is brought before the council.”

The Palestinians have been trying since 2015 to pressure FIFA into taking action against Israel over the settlement teams. FIFA’s bylaws bar any country from setting up teams in another country’s territory, or letting such teams play in its own leagues without the other country’s consent. The Palestinians want this clause used against the settlement teams and argue that if Israel doesn’t suspend them from its leagues, Israel itself should be suspended from FIFA.

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

In late March, a meeting took place in Zurich between Tokyo Sexwale, head of the committee that FIFA established to deal with the issue of the settlement teams, Israel Football Association chairman Ofer Eini and Rajoub. At this meeting, Sexwale, of South Africa, presented his committee’s draft report on the issue.

An Israeli official said the draft report was extremely harsh and even mentioned the possibility of suspending Israel from FIFA because of these teams. Eini was furious and demanded that the report be amended, the official said, and Sexwale agreed to do so. The amended version dropped any mention of suspending Israel, but still said the settlement teams’ inclusion in Israeli leagues violated FIFA’s bylaws.

Next week Sexwale is supposed to publish his final report, which is expected to exert decisive influence over whether or not the FIFA Congress votes on the issue of the settlement teams next month. Israel has been trying to soften the report’s language and remove any recommendations that would require FIFA to make a decision on the issue.

Earlier this week, Eini sent a letter to FIFA’s general secretary, Fatma Samoura, which said Israel expects FIFA to pressure the Palestinians to remove the issue of the settlement teams from FIFA’s agenda. If the Palestinians refuse, Eini added, FIFA’s president and council should use their own authority to remove it from the agenda.

“We want to prevent a vote by any means,” the Israeli official said. “The last two times, we did manage to prevent it, but now, I’m less optimistic.”

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