Let FIFA Bring Peace

The powerful and impartial world soccer association might be just the right body to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Too bad its president balked

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

It’s a pity FIFA backtracked on its intent to vote on the suspension of Israel for violating a clause in the constitution of the world soccer association. The succumbing of FIFA president Gianni Infantino to pressure exerted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a half-hour phone conversation last Friday, as reported by Netanyahu’s bureau, was both cowardly and embarrassing.

Israel is violating a clear-cut clause, which is simple and logical. Article 72.2 in FIFA’s statutes prohibits a member state from establishing a soccer team in the territory of another state which is a FIFA member. It cannot include such a team in its soccer leagues without the consent of the other state. The lower Israeli leagues have six teams from settlements in the West Bank. The West Bank is not recognized as part of Israel, not even by Israel itself. However, Palestine has been a FIFA member since 1998.

According to some reports, Netanyahu told Infantino that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been around for a long time and that FIFA would not be the one to resolve it. But, actually, why not? Or at least, why can’t it try to? If Netanyahu and his predecessors haven’t managed to do so in all their attempts over the years – Netanyahu still claims that he’s trying — why can’t someone else be given the chance to try something different?

FIFA is an international organization with immense power. Its power stems from soccer’s great popularity, which is translated into big moneyand widespread influence. Understandably, an organization such as FIFA can get mired in internal power struggles and corruption, which has set in over the years. But in the Israeli-Palestinian context the advantage of FIFA is that it is impartial with regard to inter-state politics. Israel cannot accuse it of political bias or anti-Semitism. This is an organization that deals with soccer tournaments.

It is precisely this advantage that in recent years has been exploited by the Palestinians, through the chairman of their football association, Jibril Rajoub. While in the diplomatic arena the Palestinians’ achievements have been meager — they have not acquired state status at the UN. But Palestine has been a full-fledged FIFA member with equal rights for two decades. As such, it has managed to exert real pressure on Israel, with a host of actions and threats, the latest one being the vote that was scheduled to take place this week.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, October 5, 2016.
AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

Netanyahu was right when he told FIFA president Infantino that Rajoub was promoting anti-Israel steps for internal political reasons, connected to battles over the successor of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinian sources also confirm that it’s hard not to tie Rajoub’s activity in the realm of football to his personal political ambitions. Last time Rajoub tried to get FIFA to suspend Israel, in 2015, he was met with severe criticism by Palestinians after he yielded to pressure and withdrew his proposal at the last moment, following talks he held with senior statesmen around the world.

The question one should ask is so what? Is the fact that Rajoub is a seasoned politician who leverages his activity at FIFA for his political purposes a reason to legitimize Israel’s violation of FIFA rules? Does it make the occupation and its ramifications acceptable? The obvious answer is no. It is therefore disappointing that Infantino yielded to pressure and removed the item from FIFA’s agenda at its meeting in Bahrain.

Despite this, the Palestinians chalked up a big achievement this week. They placed the occupation onto the international agenda, they made Israel sweat and they reiterated the impossibility of maintaining the occupation. They did so using diplomatic means, not through violence. Isn’t soccer a nice game?

Assaf Gavron is a novelist whose article on Palestinian football will appear next month in a collection of articles marking 50 years to the occupation.