Can FIFA's Blatter prevent Israel's suspension from international soccer?

by James M. Dorsey   @mideastsoccer

Winning a fifth term in office will be a cakewalk for FIFA’s

oft-criticized president Sepp Blatter, when measured against

the challenges posed to him by the looming Israeli-Palestinian

showdown in world soccer’s governing body. Blatter is

expected to travel to the Middle East ahead of FIFA’s May

29 congress, hoping to forge a compromise between the

two rival soccer associations to head off the Palestine Football Association’s (PFA) bid to have Israel suspended from the

international body. But he could struggle to keep the

Middle East’s most intractable conflict out of the beautiful

game.

The Palestinian resolution — which could gain significant

support among member associations — is rooted in years

of failed FIFA efforts to work out a mechanism between the

Palestinian and Israeli soccer associations to address

complaints that Israel’s occupation regime impedes the

development of the Palestinian game, as well as

accusations of racism in Israeli soccer.

The move clearly coincides with mounting efforts to build

international pressure on Israel’s occupation now that the

peace process is dormant. The movement to promote

boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) borrows heavily

from the tactics used to pressure apartheid South Africa in

the 1970s and ‘80s, and countering it is an Israeli

government priority.

Palestinian soccer officials argue that previous FIFA-mediated

agreements with the Israel Football Association (IFA) that

involved regular consultations and a hotline to resolve

problems facing Palestinian footballers at Israeli military

checkpoints in the West Bank have failed because the IFA

has no influence on Israeli security policies. Those

problems are largely related to the freedom of movement

of players between Gaza and the West Bank — and

within the West Bank itself — as well as on visiting

foreign teams, particularly ones from the Middle East

and Muslim countries.

Ironically, perhaps, Israeli diplomats lobbying against

the Palestinian resolution and the IFA itself in a meeting

with Blatter earlier this month have echoed that argument,

saying the Israeli soccer body should not be held

accountable for restrictions on Palestinian football that

are not under its control.

The argument that the IFA should not be punished for

the occupation is unlikely to impress PFA President

Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief who

spent years in Israeli prison and who sees sports as a

vehicle to help end the occupation and achieve Palestinian

statehood. Rajoub expects support from a significant

number of FIFA member associations in Africa and

Asia, as well as at least some European associations

that have long been critical of Israeli policies towards

the Palestinians. He’ll need three quarters of the

international body’s 209 members to carry the day.

The IFA, of course, is unable to influence security

policy, but that may not sway the argument for

suspension of the national soccer association of the

occupying power whose policies impede Palestinian

soccer. And other elements of the Palestinian case

could resonate with many in FIFA. These include

assertions of racism in Israeli soccer despite the fact

that Palestinian citizens are among Israel’s top players,

and the IFA’s inclusion of clubs from the Israeli

settlements deemed illegal under international law

by the U.N. Security Council. The Palestinians argue

that including those clubs in the league effectively

amounts to IFA endorsement of Israeli policy on the

West Bank.

The IFA prides itself on being the only Middle Eastern

soccer body to have an anti-racism program, and it has

repeatedly slapped the knuckles of Israeli teams that

have violated antidiscrimination codes — particularly

Beitar Jerusalem, which is notorious for its racist fan

base and refusal to hire Palestinians. The IFA has not,

however, imposed sanctions of sufficient strength to

dissuade Beitar from maintaining its discriminatory

policies and its tolerance of fans who wear racism

as a badge of honor.

The FIFA vote could be the first major litmus test of a

Palestinian campaign to isolate Israel in international

organizations since the breakdown of U.S.-sponsored

peace talks and last summer’s

Israeli military campaign in Gaza.

Ironically, FIFA was the first international organization to

recognize Palestine when it admitted the PFA in 1998 —

joining Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland and

Hong Kong, among others, as members that are not

internationally recognized sovereign nation states.

The PFA’s bid to get Israel suspended from FIFA is

closely connected with the wider effort to isolate Israel

over its policies towards the Palestinians, and its

prospects will depend on the extent of support for that

campaign.

The BDS movement was buoyed earlier this month

when the Brazilian government decided not to move

forward with a $2.2 billion contract with Israeli company

International Security and Defense Systems (ISDS).

The decision followed the cancellation late last year

by the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul of a contract

with Israeli company Elbit Systems to develop a major

aerospace research center. Both decisions were made

as a result of campaigns by BDS activists.

Even if the PFA fails this time around, many Israelis

believe the writing is on the wall.

“Whether or not the Palestinians win the vote is only

secondary to the realization that this is just the beginning

of the Palestinians’ diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions

on Israel. The issue is not football or the freedom of

movement of soccer players,” wrote Gershom Baskin in

the Jerusalem Post.

“The issue is much larger and will continue to emerge on

the international stage on which Israel is now being targeted.

The issue is of course the continuation of the occupation and

Israel’s refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right to

self-determination in an independent state of their own

next to Israel.”