Palestinian FIFA bid stirs opposite reactions among Israelis

An aborted bid by the Palestinians to expel Israel from FIFA has set off an uproar in Israel

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An aborted bid by the Palestinians to expel Israel from FIFA, the world soccer federation, has set off an uproar in Israel, raising fears that more such diplomatic assaults are on the way. But some liberal Israelis are more accepting of the Palestinian move, seeing it as an unpleasant step that just might prod Israel onto a peace track.

Israelis are used to international outrage over their nearly 50-year control over the West Bank, the territory claimed by the Palestinians as the heartland of their future state. But while U.N. condemnation and Washington and European admonitions of Israeli settlement construction are generally ignored, the threat of being kicked out of the world's pre-eminent sporting body has caught people's attention.

"We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week. "It is not connected to our actions. It is connected to our very existence."

Netanyahu praised the Israeli effort that fended off the Palestinian attempt to kick it out of FIFA - a battle that played out at last week's conference in Zurich, though it was overshadowed by the FIFA election and the scandal surrounding the soccer federation.

At the last minute, the Palestinians agreed to a compromise that averted a vote, but it came with a hefty price for Israel. From now on, Israeli actions toward Palestinian soccer players, especially restrictions on their freedom of movement, will face international monitoring and in addition, Israeli teams based in West Bank settlements will be under scrutiny. Emboldened by the gains, Palestinians are considering similar actions at the Olympics and in other international arenas.

For days, Israeli airwaves and newspapers have been filled with dire warnings that the FIFA bid is just the beginning of a massive anti-Israel action, all part of a broader Palestinian strategy to target Israel in international institutions such as the United Nations and International Criminal Court.

"The problem is not in the international institutions, but in the Israeli occupation," said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat. "What we are doing is just a means to end the Israeli occupation."

Many Israelis also see the FIFA spat as part of the broader "BDS" movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Popular commentator Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily that fighting BDS is "a national interest" for Israel. On Wednesday, Israel's parliament held a special session to discuss the BDS threat.

But some Israelis quietly and reluctantly welcome the developments, apparently disillusioned by the recent election of a nationalistic government largely opposed to Palestinian statehood. They sense that the only way to dislodge Israel from the West Bank is for the world community to exact a painful price from a nation of 8 million that is, despite all the crises, a relatively rich and stable place.

The Israeli left calculates that ending control of more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and establishing an independent Palestinian state can ensure that Israel remains both a majority Jewish and a democratic state. The West Bank Palestinians - unlike hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers - are governed by a Palestinian autonomy government with limited powers and cannot vote in Israeli elections.

Peace talks since the 1990s have repeatedly broken down, and the Israeli mainstream has been dejected with the failures and periodic bouts of violence. In his comments Sunday, Netanyahu called for a renewal of peace talks. But hard-line statements during the election campaign earlier this year have made many in the international community, including President Barack Obama, skeptical.

"It seems like the only way to end this occupation will be through international pressure," said Uri Misgav, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz daily. "Nothing is happening on the peace process. Nothing is happening from Israel's own free will. It all comes to pressure from the outside."

Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, said few Israelis will openly welcome global pressure against Israeli settlements, in part because of recent legislation that bans Israelis from boycotting the settlements.

But he said FIFA's decision sent a "very powerful message" against the settlements. "FIFA and the international community can remind Israel that there is a green line," he said, referring to the boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

While far from mainstream, such views seem to be gaining steam. "The day is not far when Israeli society will need to decide whether if for the benefit of settlements it is worth sacrificing Israel's international legitimacy," said Zehava Galon, leader of the small opposition party Meretz.

For most Israelis, however, the FIFA showdown was part of what is widely known as "delegitimization" of the country's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Last week, Israeli university presidents met with President Reuven Rivlin to air their concerns about growing support worldwide for academic boycotts of Israel.

Peretz Lavie, chairman of the Israeli Association of University Heads, said Israeli universities are having a harder time attracting colleagues from abroad to participate in conferences or to provide recommendations for their Israeli counterparts. He called this a "latent" boycott that is hard to prove, but is increasingly evident.

More troubling, he added, is the growing support for BDS activities on college campuses, especially in the United States, where students now hold annual "Israel apartheid" events.

"These students in 10 years are going to be lawyers and senators and governors," said Lavie, who is also president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

While the actual accomplishments of the BDS movement have been limited, the Israeli government is taking it seriously and countering with a campaign of public relations and diplomacy. Yuval Rotem, the Foreign Ministry's top official for public diplomacy, said Israel has a well-prepared strategy to deal with this "challenge."

Uri Savir, a former Israeli diplomat who negotiated interim peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s, said the global focus should be on settlements rather than Israel as a whole, since they undermine the international goal of a two-state solution.

"The equation is simple" for Israeli leaders, he said. "Put an end to the occupation and put an end to these pressures."

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