The Palestinian delegation to FIFA on Friday dropped a motion to have the Israeli soccer federation suspended from international football amid pressure from dozens of national delegates.
Palestinian soccer chief Jibril Rajoub submitted a last-minute amendment to the proposal, eliminating the demand for ban, and told the Congress that “a lot of colleagues” had asked him not to call for Israel’s suspension.
“Palestine has not withdrawn it’s application completely, but merely suspended it,” he added. “A lot of colleagues, whom I respect and whose commitment to the ethics and values of the game I appreciate, told me how painful it is to hear of the issue of suspension.
“But I want to protect the Palestinian footballers, to let them enjoy the privilege of the game as others do.”
He said dozens of football presidents called on him to drop the bid, “but it does not mean that I give up the resistance.”
Instead, Rajoub called on international delegates to vote on setting up a monitoring mechanism to oversee three points: the movement of Palestinian soccer players and soccer equipment donated to the Palestinians, monitoring racism and discrimination against Palestinian soccer players, and the issue of Israeli teams from settlements in the West Bank, which he referred to as “five racist clubs which should be banned.”
Theatrically, Rajoub pulled out a referee’s red card at the podium, saying he was showing the card in a protest against “racism, humiliation and demonstration in Palestine and everywhere.”
Israel’s delegate Ofer Eini requested to speak immediately afterwards, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter gave him the podium. Israeli Football Association head Eini said he was “delighted” that the Palestinians had dropped the motion and called on Rajoub to “leave politics to politicians.”
“I appeal to Jibril Rajoub… I want us to work together, I want us to cooperate, I want us to hug and embrace each other,” Eini said, addressing the congress in Hebrew.
“There is one thing on which I disagree with you,” he said. “We must not involve politics and football.” He said the five teams Rajoub sought to ban were kids’ sports teams.
“There are always differences of opinion… but if we can speak, we can always resolve our differences,” he said. We have proposed a joint committee (Israel, the Palestinians and FIFA)… and I hope we will be able to resolve all problems as they arise.”
“I call upon you to join me on the podium and shake hands,” he said, inviting Rajoub to join him on stage — an offer Rajoub rejected.
“I am ready to come and shake hands, but let us vote, make a deal — me and you will cooperate under the umbrella of FIFA,” Rajoub said. “Let us vote for the items I have raised, then we can shake hands.”
Blatter said that the congress would not debate the issue of the standing of the Palestinian territories. Blatter clarified that the FIFA executive committee ruled that the Congress “cannot interfere into political territories.”
The Congress voted 165-18 in favor of the Palestinian amendment, essentially abandoning the effort to have Israel banned, after which Eini and Rajoub shook hands.
Blatter hailed the fact that “solidarity” had prevailed. He said it was now “up to Israel to help and share a bit more with Palestine.” Blatter reportedly blocked a bid by Rajoub to have the issue of the five West Bank settlement teams handled by the UN, saying FIFA would deal with the issue.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the Palestinian decision to drop the motion calling for Israel’s suspension, saying that Israel’s “international effort has proven itself and led to the failure of the Palestinian Authority attempt to oust us from FIFA.”
“The State of Israel is interested in a peace that will ensure security for its citizens but this will not be achieved through coercion and distorting the truth. The only way to achieve peace is to begin negotiations between the sides,” Netanyahu said in a statement. So long as the Palestinians take unilateral steps against Israel, he said, “they will only push peace further away instead of bringing it closer.”
“At a time when the international community is calling for confidence-building measures, the Palestinians are once again replying with an attempt to carry out unilateral steps that harm the ability to advance a regional settlement,” Netanyahu added.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev praised FIFA for “not giving politics a foothold in sports.” The Likud minister invited Rajoub to meet with her and work out the problems facing Palestinian football players for the sake of all athletes.
After late-Thursday efforts to suspend the vote on Israel’s expulsion from world soccer’s governing body, Israeli soccer officials had thought a Friday vote might be unavoidable.
The motion, brought by the Palestinian delegation and citing travel restrictions Israel has placed on some players and the participation of West Bank settlers in Israel’s own soccer federation, called for the severing of Israeli soccer clubs’ access to the global soccer body. If passed, it would effectively have left Israel unable to participate in international soccer.
To pass, the Palestinian delegation would have had to win over three-quarters of the 209 member soccer federations of FIFA.
Dozens of soccer federations had told Israeli officials in recent days that they would vote against the motion, and the European federation UEFA, which has 54 voting members, had publicly sided with Israel.
FIFA president Blatter, now embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that saw indictments filed this week against multiple present and former FIFA officials, had publicly opposed the Palestinian motion.
On a visit to Israel last week, Blatter told Netanyahu that “football is nowadays such a strong, strong organization that we should go into a peace situation and not into a fighting situation, and football shall connect people and not divide people.”
Blatter had called a potential successful vote on the Palestinian motion a “dangerous” precedent that could get FIFA involved in other political and diplomatic battles.
It was a sentiment echoed by Netanyahu, who said: “Sport is a vehicle of goodwill among nations. The thing that could destroy the Football Association is politicizing it. You politicize it once with Israel, then you politicize it for everyone, and it will cause the deterioration of a great institution.”
But Blatter also urged Israel to take Palestinian demands seriously. Israel needed to “concede something,” Blatter said, in return for the motion being rejected.
In the last few days, Israel offered a four-point compromise to the Palestinians: granting Palestinian soccer players and coaches special identification cards to allow them to pass more or less freely between Gaza and the West Bank, and between the West Bank and Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport so they could travel overseas with minimal hindrance; aid and approval for the construction of stadiums and soccer fields in the West Bank; tax exemptions for sporting supplies passing through Israeli ports on their way to Palestinian soccer clubs; and the establishment of a trilateral committee of officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and FIFA that would be tasked with resolving problems as they arise.
The Palestinian delegation to FIFA rejected the compromise, with Palestinian soccer chief Rajoub saying the motion would not be withdrawn unless the Israel Football Association itself kicked out the five soccer clubs from West Bank settlements and FIFA established a committee to investigate racism in Israeli soccer.
Blatter, Haaretz reported, was considering supporting the Palestinian demand to sever West Bank settlement teams from other Israeli teams as a concession to prevent the Israel vote from coming up Friday, but the demand has faced vehement opposition among Israeli officials.
Israel Football Association chairman Eini, in Zurich with the Israeli delegation to FIFA, rejected the demand out of hand.
“The Palestinians are trying to win a concession that the vote won’t get them. They’re trying to use sports to show the world that they succeeded in removing from the [Israel] Soccer Association teams from the other side of the Green Line. There is no chance in the world that Israel will be an accessory to such a thing, [even if] that means we go to a vote,” Eini said.
UEFA president Michel Platini praised the Israeli compromise proposal, which “satisfies and contributes meaningfully to improving the situation,” he told UEFA-member club leaders in Zurich. “Israel has not violated any [FIFA] regulation, and there is no cause for suspending it. I am convinced FIFA will adopt Israel’s proposal.”
Eini, a long-time Labor Party member and former Israeli union leader, warned FIFA officials in his own speech before the UEFA gathering on Wednesday that “any attempt to turn FIFA into a body that intervenes in [disputes over] international borders is unacceptable to us.”