Israel Staves Off Threat of Soccer Sanctions

FIFA chief Sepp Blatter to seek political solution to plight of Palestinian players.

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Anyone in Israel concerned that FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, was about to acquiesce to the demands of the Palestinian soccer federation and impose sanctions against Israel, can rest easy.

On Friday afternoon, Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon managed to convince FIFA's all-powerful president, Sepp Blatter, to seek a less aggressive solution to the long-running problem of limited freedom of movement for Palestinian players in Gaza and the West Bank.

Over the course of the past week, Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rajoub, the former commander of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank, has been lobbying for FIFA to impose sanctions against Israel for not allowing members of the various Palestinian national teams to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank, and preventing them from representing their country in international matches.

As a full member of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, the Palestine FA has started to hold more regional tournaments and it has accused Israel of stopping athletes from others countries from entering.

Recently, two teenage players from Myanmar were held up in Jordan for a week awaiting clearance so they could play in an under-17 tournament before eventually being allowed in.

Both Rajoub and Luzon were at the AFC's conference in Mauritius, although the two men did not meet during their time on the island. After a tense diplomatic battle, Luzon convinced the delegation heads he met with not to agree to the Palestinians' demands.

When Rajoub realized that the political battle had been lost, he persuaded Blatter to add Israel to his itinerary for the upcoming Middle East tour, which will also take in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Instead, Blatter will meet with government officials in Jerusalem and members of the IFA to try and come up with a compromise arrangement, and will see for himself the difficulties facing Palestinian soccer players.

"I hope that next year, I come with no complaints," Rajoub told the Congress. "I want to eat grapes rather than to quarrel with anyone. I don't wish Palestine's suffering on anyone else, including the Israeli footballers."

He added, however, that FIFA should impose sanctions on Israeli soccer if the matter is not resolved. "If this issue is not settled, I don't think those who do not comply with the statutes and standards and values should be rewarded. Sanctions should be taken. Nobody has the right to act as a bully in the neighborhood," he said.

Blatter reiterated his pledge to intervene on the Palestinians' behalf. "Football should not be a victim of such situations," he said, adding, "We can and shall play a role in improving understanding between the communities in this region. I am committed to ensuring that football continues to develop and be developed in a difficult region."

Luzon, for his part, said he would work to keep soccer separate from politics and, disagreeing with the Palestine FA, said a crisis had already been averted.

"We will continue to guard Israeli football and football in general from all political influence. I'm pleased that this problem is behind us and we will continue to strive for the advancement of football," he said.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to campaign to have Israel stripped of hosting the upcoming Under-21 European Championship, which gets under way on Wednesday night, when the host nation meets Norway in Netanya. Over the weekend, letters were sent to the heads of the seven other participating nations, urging them to boycott the tournament.

"What we have to do now," Luzon told Haaretz Saturday, "is show the world that Israel is more than capable of hosting a major soccer tournament."

Former French soccer star Lilian Thuram, left, watches as Palestinian Football Association chairman Jibril Rajoub kicks the ball during the inauguration of the new stadium Thursday.Credit: AFP

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