No winners in continued Israel-Palestine standoff

Sepp Blatter plays football with Palestinian children (File Photo: AP)

Football has transcended race, religion and culture over the last century. The global game can tear down borders, end feuds and even mend relationships after war.

But the attempts between Israel, Palestine, and mediators FIFA, to create dialogue over what Palestine perceives to be ‘rampant racism’ and measures against the territory that harps back to Apartheid.

Palestine Football Association president Jibril al-Rajoub has been outspoken towards Israel’s restrictions on the development of football in the state. Israel has prevented border crossings, affecting team preparation, as well as, preventing equipment entering Palestine.

The stance of outgoing president Sepp Blatter is clear - the matters should be addressed by the two football federations in question of Israel and Palestine. Blatter visited both camps before the 65th FIFA Congress when the Palestine Football Federation (PFF) President Rajoub dropped a motion for Israel to be suspended.

Nevertheless, Palestine’s frustration at Israel remains pertinent. As FIFA confirmed in June, former South African government minister Tokyo Sexwale will lead a monitoring committee to ‘oversee issues affecting the development of football in Palestine.’

“From his own experiences and expertise in community reconciliation and conflict resolution in South Africa, we believe Mr Sexwale is well placed to help improve access for football in the Palestinian Territories,” Blatter said in an official statement.

‘Big-hearted Palestine’

Given the stagnant political negotiations between the two countries, Palestine has taken its case into the milieu of football. The state has made sizeable leaps forward in recent years, an accession into FIFA paving the way for Palestine to compete at an international level.

In January, Palestine competed at the AFC Asian Cup for the first time. With increasing sporting success, despite the restrictions of Israel, the case for Palestine to be acknowledged at a sovereign state with the same opportunities as its neighbor is center to international football politics.

In 2007, as James Dorsey writes, FIFA forced the Palestinians to forfeit a World Cup qualifier after Israel refused visas for 18 players. Eight years later, Rajoub tabled the motion more than 200 FIFA confederations for Israel to be suspended for breaking the organization’s statutes.

“Our call to suspend the Israeli Football Association from FIFA comes after nearly three years of a failed mechanism to secure meaningful and substantial commitments from the Israeli side, where oppression and discrimination against Palestinian sports in general, and football in particular, have remained unchanged,” the Palestine FA writes.

Rajoub claimed there was support from countries like Oman and Egypt, while many other Arab nations would have thrown their weight behind the proposal. In the words of Blatter, the decision to drop the motion shows the Palestinians have a ‘big-heart,’ yet it merely allows the feud to continue under the shadow of FIFA’s own corruption case.

Stale for Israel

Amid political lobbying and one-upmanship, some Israeli media have claimed victory on the FIFA front. But that is to ignore a crucial facet of the debate: sport is the only vehicle capable of mending broken relationships.

By merely postponing the inevitable, the issue around Israel’s future within the world’s governing association will rumble on - should appropriate measures to cooperate with Palestine’s football federation not progress substantially.

A caution this time round could become a red card next time, writes one Israeli columnist. And correctly, the lingering doubt over Israel’s future, leaving the debate open to chance, means the country’s federation is vulnerable to expulsion.

Prior to the 1940s, Israel’s voice was heard through the Palestinian federation. A new body was formed in 1952 following Israel’s establishment as an independent territory.

Amid rising tension around the three-week Ramadan War, Israel was ostracized from the AFC in 1974. Many Arab nations opposed competing against Israel and so, began the country’s nomadic existence.

First, there was attempts to join Oceania’s football confederation - they remained a FIFA member - and then Europe. In 1992, Israel became an official member of UEFA, Europe’s football association.

One other interesting dynamic is the successor of President Blatter. For all his flaws, Blatter has been instrumental in forcing regional dialogue between the parties and facilitating growth in Palestine football through FIFA’s own development program.

But when Blatter steps down from power, the future of Israel’s relationship with FIFA could be under threat. One of the leading candidates is Prince-Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, one of the members who have reportedly supported Rajoub’s demands.

On the contrary, the appointment of a European candidate would likely see a more diplomatic solution to ensure peace between the opposite sides who are at continued loggerheads.

“We will continue to fight the Israeli racist policies against the Palestinian sport family, through FIFA, the Olympics, the Human Rights Council and the UN,” Rajoub insists. “We will not stop our efforts until we have the right to enjoy the Olympic Charter, the statutes of FIFA, as any other sports family all over the world. This is a fundamental right for our people.”

If Rajoub is true to his word, this tussle at FIFA HQ could rumble on long after the world's governing body has overcome a crisis of its own.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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