Opposition MKs blame Netanyahu, sports minister for nixed Argentina game

Lawmakers say match’s move to Jerusalem, allegedly part of a deal to allow Regev to meet Messi, fanned BDS flames and led to the cancellation

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (L) attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on December 11, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (L) attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on December 11, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition MKs charged Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev were to blame for Argentina’s cancellation of its national team’s game in Israel, accusing them of politicizing the game by insisting it take place in Jerusalem.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie told reporters in Washington on the sidelines of the Organization of American States meeting that he believed Argentina’s players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the game.

“As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game,” Faurie said late Tuesday, before confirmation of the game’s cancellation.

On Sunday, the head of the Palestinian football federation, Jibril Rajoub, had urged Arab and Muslim sports fans to burn photos and t-shirts of star player Lionel Messi if the game went ahead.

Rajoub said Israel had turned the match, which had been set to take place on Saturday, into a “political tool” by insisting it be held in Jerusalem as opposed to the originally planned location of Haifa.

Several Zionist Union lawmakers echoed Rajoub’s assessment, saying that the decision had contributed to the game’s cancellation.

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog speaks on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018. (Courtesy)

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog said in a statement that Israel scored a “spectacular own goal” for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, questioning claims that Israel’s international standing is improving and describing Argentina’s decision as “a symbolic failure of a government that is burying its head in the sand.”

Zionist Union number two Tzipi Livni said the move was a result of “Regev and Netanyahu’s insistence on turning the game from a display of sportsmanship into a display of personal politics.

“We should have left the players on the pitch, the fans in the stands and the politicians outside,” she wrote on Twitter.

Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, a veteran Israeli Arab soccer commentator, agreed that the decision to move the match to Jerusalem “turned the game into an antagonistic political event that brought about its cancellation.”

Party chairman Avi Gabbay said Israel had received “a slap in the face,” and predicted that the move could trigger “an international tsunami” of BDS victories against the country.

Avi Gabbay at a meeting with supporters in Kadima on March 13, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

While not directly meting out blame for the cancellation, Gabbay slammed Regev’s “corrupt behavior” in the run-up to the game, alluding to accusations that she had agreed to pay the organizers NIS 2.6 million ($730,000) to move the game from Haifa to Jerusalem, on the condition of her having a photo op with Messi on the pitch. He called for a criminal investigation into her actions.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid accused the government of “amateurism,” saying that Regev’s over-involvement in the preparations for the game and a generally lackluster effort to combat BDS led to its nixing.

In a mocking tweet, Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi implied that Israel’s international diplomatic efforts were misguided, suggesting that instead of playing Argentina, the national team should face Myanmar, a country that Israel signed a cooperation agreement with this week despite vast criticism over its treatment of its Rohingya minority.

Rajoub celebrated the move Wednesday, saying it “was a slap in the face to Israeli racism” and charging that “the Israelis were trying to use Messi as an international icon. The Israeli government uses sports to cover up its crimes.”

The Culture and Sport Ministry’s Director General Yossi Sharabi said, however, that “a final effort” was still being made to hold the game as planned.

Sharabi, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster’s Israel Radio, rejected suggestions that moving the match from its original Haifa location to Jerusalem had contributed to the cancellation.

“You can’t blame moving the game; we can’t accept a situation where we are dictated to not play in Jerusalem,” he said, adding that “Jerusalem was never raised as an issue or a problem by the Argentine [Soccer] Association.”

BDS Argentina’s call to the Argentine national soccer team to boycott a friendly match against Israel planned for Tel Aviv on June 9. The hashtag #ArgentinaNoVayas means ‘Argentina don’t go.’ (BDS Argentina Facebook page)

Rather, Sharabi said, the issue was the Argentine team’s very arrival in Israel. “It’s an attempt to frighten, a terrible threat campaign against players and their families.”

Responding to the initial reports of the cancellation, Regev said early Wednesday that players had received threats from “terror groups.”

“Since they announced they would play against Israel, various terror groups have been sending messages and letters to players on the Argentina national team and their relatives, including clear threats to hurt them and their families,” she said. “These included video clips of dead children.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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