Netanyahu concerned scrapped soccer match could portend future cancellations

Prime minister calls Argentina’s decision to withdraw from friendly game in Jerusalem ‘disappointing,’ but stops short of blaming sports minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting with French Economy Minister and entrepreneurs at the French Economy Ministry in Paris on June 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting with French Economy Minister and entrepreneurs at the French Economy Ministry in Paris on June 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday voiced concern over Argentina’s “disappointing” decision to scrap its friendly soccer match against Israel, saying he hoped it did not foreshadow cancellations of future cultural events in the Jewish state.

“I hope this will not affect other areas,” he said in London. “We must prepare for the possibility that all kinds of pressure will be exerted.”

The sold-out game scheduled for Saturday night was called off after a concerted campaign by Palestinian politicians and supporters calling on Argentina not to play in Israel and after the team’s players received threats.

Speaking with reporters after a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, Netanyahu also called the Argentine team’s decision “disappointing and unfortunate.”

However, the prime minister stopped short of blaming Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev for the debacle, saying that although she was the one who insisted the game be played in the capital, “it was natural to request to transfer the game to Jerusalem,” according to Hebrew media reports.

Israeli Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev speaks at a press at the Ministry of Culture and Sports offices in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Netanyahu told reporters he first heard the news on Tuesday night and phoned Argentine President Mauricio Macri to see whether he could intervene. The prime minister said Macri phoned him back a short while later and told him there was nothing he could do.

“It is not a political decision by the president,” Macri reportedly told Netanyahu.

The cancellation of the Argentina match in soccer-crazy Israel also unleashed worries about another beloved upcoming event set to be held in Jerusalem next spring: the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest.

Those worries were not unfounded, according to the Ynet news website.

At a recent meeting, European organizers of the Eurovision reportedly stressed to their Israeli counterparts that if the music competition becomes a source of political wrangling, there was a real chance it could be held elsewhere.

“They gave us Ukraine as an example,” a senior official from Israel’s Kan public broadcasting told the website.

Ukraine caused political controversy when it hosted the competition in 2017, but refused to allow the Russian entrant into the country due to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

“They almost threw them out over this,” the Israeli official said. “We must be very careful. The European broadcasters made it clear that the government must not intervene and try to make it political.”

The organizers demanded that at least two Israeli cities submit tenders to host the competition, hinting that Jerusalem was not their preferred choice, according to the report.

“Our goal is that countries do not boycott the venue,” the Europeans told the Israelis, according to Ynet.

Israeli Ambassador to Argentina Ilán Sztulman speaks at a ceremony to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the terror attack on the embassy in Buenos Aires, that killed 29 and injured 242. (Courtesy/Israeli Embassy via JTA)

Also Wednesday, Israel’s Ambassador in Buenos Aires lamented the cancellation of the soccer match and considered that the main reason for calling it off was the “fear” of the Argentine players.

Ambassador Ilan Sztulman told Radio Mitre that “Israel is completely safe,” questioning the measure taken by the Argentine Football Association on the eve of protests by pro-Palestinian groups against Saturday’s match.

“The reason is not political, the national team (Argentina) has no problem with the State of Israel — simply, it was afraid,” said the diplomat.

Regev said earlier Wednesday that threats against the Argentine players were behind the abrupt cancellation of a World Cup warm-up match in Jerusalem.

At a press conference, the culture minister also lashed out at criticism of her decision to relocate the match to Jerusalem and likened Palestinian threats against the Argentine players to the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympians.

FC Barcelona and Argentina soccer star Lionel Messi visits Jerusalem’s Western Wall on August 4, 2013. (Screen capture: YouTube)

“The game was canceled for one reason only — threats to the life of the star [Lionel] Messi,” Regev told reporters. “The terror threats against him and his family overwhelmed the world soccer star,” she said, adding that this information came from the producers of the event.

Regev vehemently denied the prevalent explanation given for the cancellation — her insistence on hosting the game in Jerusalem rather than Haifa — calling that criticism “despicable” and a “lie.”

In canceling the match, Claudio Tapia, president of Argentina’s soccer association, stressed that “it’s nothing against the Israeli community, it’s nothing against the Jewish community,” adding that he hoped “everyone will take this decision as a contribution to peace.”

He apologized to Israelis who had purchased tickets.

Tapia said Argentina had “left open” the possibility of playing Israel in the future, either in the Jewish state or elsewhere.

Argentina’s Lucas Biglia takes part in a team training session at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper, in Sant Joan Despi, Spain, June 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

The sold-out game in Jerusalem, which had been due to take place on Saturday was hotly opposed by Palestinians.

Pro-Palestinian activists staged a demonstration on Tuesday in front of the sports complex where Lionel Messi and the rest of the Argentina squad were preparing. Some waved jerseys of the Argentina’s national team stained with fake blood.

The group that organized the protest said the cancellation of the match was a “gesture of empathy with the Palestinian people.”

“We will remember the Argentine team and Messi because they said, ‘Not in our name,'” the group added on Facebook.

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