Likud MK Miri Regev discovered a new front last week for grabbing public support, using the nationalist incitement that has become her trademark. During a soccer game against Beitar Jerusalem, Bnei Sakhnin fans waved Palestinian flags in the stands. That was enough for Regev to take to her Facebook page, where she announced that she’d make sure the Arab team “won’t get any help from the state and will be suspended from the league. I will work to advance legislation on this issue.”
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Regev didn’t bother to mention that flying the Palestinian flag is not illegal, nor that the act occurred in a game against a team that for ideological reasons has never signed an Arab player, or that this team’s fans tend to yell “death to the Arabs” at almost every game. Regev, who chairs the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, rushed to the television news studios to declare that she would convene the committee to examine Bnei Sakhnin’s funding. “It’s impossible to fund them when they act against the state,” she said. “The [Israel Sports] Betting Council must stop disbursing funds to them. Israel is not Palestine … let them play in the Palestinian league.”
Regev’s knee-jerk, nationalist responses are no surprise. Her parliamentary power rests on nationalist and racist instincts, and it seems that without her role in strumming those dark chords, there would be no place for her in the legislature. But in trying to extract personal gain by widening the rift between the Israeli establishment and the Arab community, Regev is actually doing great harm to one of the few areas in which Jewish-Arab coexistence is particularly successful.
Israeli soccer is a useful example of how it’s possible to dissolve the institutionalized discrimination against the Arab population. Only 17 years ago, in 1996, the first Arab team (Hapoel Taibeh) qualified for the top division, and in 2003 two additional teams qualified – Maccabi Ahi Nazareth and Bnei Sakhnin. A year later Sakhnin won the State Cup, and in the next season it represented Israel in Europe.
Today, dozens of Arab players play in Israel’s Premier and National league, as well as the Israeli national team at its different age levels. It is estimated that among all the soccer leagues in Israel, for every three Jewish players there are two Arab ones.
Instead of fostering this important trend, Regev is trying to roll it back for political gain. She is exploiting the tension between the fans of Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem in a disgraceful fashion and is doing unnecessary damage. It would behoove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat to at least spare Israeli sport this penalty.