Israel vote at FIFA may be unavoidable, say officials

Global umbrella set to take up Palestinian motion to suspend Israel from participation in world soccer

Palestinian youth hold red cards and placards reading in Arabic, 'Israel out of FIFA,' during a demonstration against the Israel Football Federation in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 28, 2015. (AFP photo/Hazem Bader)
Palestinian youth hold red cards and placards reading in Arabic, 'Israel out of FIFA,' during a demonstration against the Israel Football Federation in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 28, 2015. (AFP photo/Hazem Bader)

After late-Thursday efforts to suspend a vote on Israel’s expulsion from world soccer’s governing body, Israeli soccer officials said a Friday vote on Israel’s participation in the international organization may 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, calls for the severing of Israeli soccer clubs’ access to the global soccer body. If it passes at the FIFA congress in Zurich on Friday, it would effectively leave Israel unable to participate in international soccer tournaments.

To pass, the Palestinian delegation must win over three-quarters of the 209 member soccer federations of FIFA.

On paper, Israel appears to be safe. Dozens of soccer federations have told Israeli officials in recent days that they would vote against the motion, and the European federation UEFA, which has 54 voting members, publicly sided with Israel.

But Israeli officials are worried nonetheless, according to the Haaretz daily, because the vote will be by secret ballot and many in the international community may choose to anonymously punish Israel for the perception that it is responsible for stalled peace talks and continued occupation of the West Bank.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, now embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that saw indictments filed this week against multiple present and former FIFA officials, has publicly opposed the Palestinian motion.

On a visit to Israel last week, Blatter told Prime Minister Benjamin 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 has 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 has 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 Jibril Rajoub saying the motion would not be withdrawn unless the Israel Football Association itself kicked out five soccer clubs from West Bank settlements and FIFA established a committee to investigate racism in Israeli soccer.

Since the West Bank settlements are not considered within Israeli territory by the United Nations, FIFA rules stipulate that Israeli teams from the West Bank must obtain Palestinian permission to participate in the Israeli federation, and thus in world soccer tournaments and championships.

But the Palestinian rejection of the Israeli compromise may prove costly to the Palestinian effort.

Blatter, Haaretz reported, is 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 Ofer 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.

One Israeli delegate told Haaretz: “There is no chance that Israel will be suspended in the vote, and the only thing the Palestinian can achieve will be to win the support of countries that are in any case anti-Israel. If the Palestinians take this to the end, they’ll lose twice — first in the vote, and second in that they won’t get any of the concessions that Israel and the prime minister have already agreed to give them. They know this, but They’re not thinking rationally. They’re driven by politics.”

Meanwhile, UEFA president Michel Platini has 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.”

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