FIFA Mulls Giving Israel Six Months to Stop Soccer Games in Settlements

FIFA panel charged with Israeli-Palestinian issue to present report Monday recommending action on settlements

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, and Tokyo Sewale speak to the media in front of the separation barrier near Ramallah, May 7, 2015.
Head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, and Tokyo Sewale speak to the media in front of the separation barrier near Ramallah, May 7, 2015.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

FIFA's committee on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has recommended that the federation give the Israel Football Association six months to stop games in the settlements before deciding whether to suspend Israel or any of its teams.

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The panel recommended that FIFA take the decision during its annual congress in Bahrain on May 10-11. According to a draft report, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, the panel recommended that should Israel fail to comply, FIFA would then decide whether to suspend the country or the teams that play in the settlements from the federation.

The Palestinians have been trying since 2015 to pressure FIFA into taking action against Israel over teams that play in the settlements. 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 FIFA committee, and the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian soccer associations, Ofer Eini and Jibril Rajoub. At this meeting, Sexwale presented his committee’s draft report on the issue.

The 20-page report summarizes the talks held between the sides over the past two years, and offers three recommendations of possible action on FIFA's part:

1. Maintaining the status-quo between the sides: No action would be taken by FIFA until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. "The problems with such an option is that it does not take into account the views expressed by the international community in relation to the settlements through various UN resolutions, including the recent 2334 UNSC resolution of 23 December 2016."

2. Warning the Israeli soccer association: Under this option, FIFA would apply article 72.2, according to which a member association and its teams may not play on the territory of another association without the latter's consent. As per this option, the Israel Football Association "is given a warning by FIFA (yellow card) to rectify this issue by desisting to administer football in the territories in question within a minimum period of six months. Failure to find a resolution within this period, then the matter will revert to the FIFA Council for decision-making."

The report says that this recommendation is in line with a similar situation that emerged following Russia's annexation of Crimea. In this case, Russia wasn't allowed to include teams from the peninsula in its league. It was ultimately decided to establish a separate league for Russian teams from the occupied territory.

"FIFA must be seen as acting even-handedly despite the two situations not being exactly similar," the draft said. "The problem with this option is that there is no predicting what the Israeli authorities could do to frustrate Palestinian football which is largely played at the mercy of the Israeli security authorities."

The draft report doesn't make clear which sanctions FIFA would impose if Israel fails to meet the six-month deadline. A senior Israeli official said that the worst-case scenario is Israel getting suspended from the federation. Otherwise, FIFA could impose sanctions on the six teams playing in the settlements.

3. Encouraging discussion between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer associations: Under this option, the two sides would try to reach an agreement, with the talks between them focusing purely on soccer, rather the politics. "This option, however, would be futile in view of the fact that despite both parties [being] interested in football, the heart of the conflict in the region is land related to a State for Israel and a State for Palestine, or whatever situation is agreed upon through negotiations," the draft says.

Sexwale wrote in the draft report's conclusion that while both Israel and the Palestinians say that they seek to keep politics and soccer separate, they do not agree on the nature of this declaration.

"It is vital that FIFA ought to be extremely aware of the complexities involved, and must resist any temptation to be caught in any political conflict such as the one between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he wrote.

"It must, as a football organization, look after essentially the interest of football Regarding the FIFA Congress decision, it must be clear that whatever option is acted upon, there will be a fallout which will have to be appropriately managed. What FIFA cannot avoid is taking a decision on this matter."

Sexwale is expected to submit his final report to FIFA, Israel and the Palestinians on Monday. The report is expected to exert decisive influence over whether or not the FIFA Congress votes on the issue of teams that play in the settlements next month. Israel has been trying to soften the report’s language, especially in the second recommendation.

Meanwhile, Israel is trying to thwart a possible vote on the report and its recommendations during the FIFA Congress. Ambassadors in dozens of capitals worldwide have been ordered to work with officials of their host countries to foil the move. A senior Israeli 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.”

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