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Analysis

PA soccer chief looks to outmaneuver Israel on diplomatic field

FIFA vote on booting Jewish state may not succeed, but it’s already boosted the political standing of former Palestinian security head Jibril Rajoub

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, right, releases a dove next to Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub, during his visit to the West Bank on May 20, 2015. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, right, releases a dove next to Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub, during his visit to the West Bank on May 20, 2015. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

RAMALLAH — Jibril Rajoub has been the man of the hour in Ramallah since he began his efforts to have Israel suspended from the International Federation of Soccer (FIFA).

A vote is to be held next week in the FIFA Congress, the federation’s supreme body, which comprises representatives from each affiliated member association, and Rajoub says that a large majority will support the Palestinian request to suspend all Israeli teams from FIFA soccer activities. While Rajoub’s campaign has cast him as an enemy of the State of Israel, it has gained him quite a few points in Palestinian public opinion, particularly among supporters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter visited Israel and the West Bank on Tuesday and Wednesday for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas. Blatter has said the Palestinian bid to expel Israel is his “challenge number one” ahead of the May 29 FIFA Congress, at which he will also be seeking reelection. The motion will need a three quarters majority to be passed at the FIFA Congress in Zurich. He said last week that a successful vote on the Palestinian motion would be a “dangerous” precedent that could get FIFA involved in other political and diplomatic battles. But he said that Israel would need to “concede something” in return for the motion being rejected.

For many years Israelis knew Rajoub, who is also known by his nom de guerre Abu Rami, as the strongman of the West Bank by virtue of his position as the commander of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, at least during Yasser Arafat’s reign in the PA. Subsequent events, such as Operation Defensive Shield, the major 2002 anti-terror campaign in the West Bank; the collapse of the organization he led; and a falling-out with his Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan — weakened him considerably. But that was many years ago.

More recently, Rajoub became chairman of the Palestinian Football Association and of the Palestinian Olympic Committee. While it seemed like an odd career move at first, it helped him reestablish his status in Fatah and on the Palestinian street.

Anyone familiar with Palestinian politics knows that Rajoub has become one of the strongest people in the local political arena in recent years. He is a close associate of Abbas, is intimately involved in talks with Hamas and with Israel, and is beloved of Fatah’s field operatives. He holds Fatah’s third-highest position (Mohammed Gheim, also known as Abu Maher, who officially holds Fatah’s second-highest position as secretary-general of its central committee, has retired), and many governors of the various West Bank cities and commanders of security agencies were once officers under his command.

‘Suspension from FIFA does not kill people,’ Rajoub says. ‘It is a nonviolent resistance measure’

So after having lost his power in the West Bank, as the Israelis thought, Rajoub is once again in the headlines here.

Rajoub says that the Palestinians are determined to keep up their efforts to get Israel suspended from FIFA. In an interview with The Times of Israel in his Ramallah office Tuesday, Rajoub says he expects sweeping support in the vote that is to take place in the FIFA Congress eight days from now.

“We will go to a vote, and we will suspend Israel’s activity as long it does not agree to allow the Palestinian Football Association to act freely, and as long as it keeps persecuting Palestinian athletes and continues to maintain the five soccer clubs in the settlements,” he said, referring to Israeli teams in West Bank towns.

He is not encouraging violence, nor is he calling for an intifada. On the contrary. “Resistance is not violence,” he says.

“Suspension from FIFA does not kill people,” Rajoub says. “It is a nonviolent resistance measure. What would the Israelis rather do — promote the ethics and values of the game among young people, or promote the values of a submachine gun? The Israelis must realize that they should be joining our effort to end the Palestinian athletes’ suffering.”

He recalls quite a few cases in which Israeli security forces used force against Palestinian athletes and soccer clubs. He shows photographs and videos of a raid by IDF soldiers on the Palestinian Football Association, the arrest of a soccer referee and a police raid on a Palestinian soccer game in East Jerusalem.

“These are kids under 14,” he says. “Why was it so urgent to go in and stop the game in the middle? I don’t want to make anybody suffer. I want to save my athletes from suffering. I wouldn’t wish that kind of suffering on anyone, including Israeli athletes. And I suggest that Israeli soccer fans not complain to me. Instead, they should complain to their own government, which is responsible for this situation. We have been under a cruel and hurtful occupation for 48 years, and the time has come to say ‘Enough.’”

But what do you stand to gain from doing this?

“We have been talking to the Israelis about this for years and trying to convince them to keep sports and politics separate. Unfortunately, no positive response has come from the Israeli side. We contacted FIFA two years ago, asking them to resolve the issue. Blatter [the FIFA president] was authorized by the FIFA Congress to come and persuade the Israelis not to restrict freedom of movement for Palestinian soccer players and athletes, but they did not take him seriously and kept on offending them and me personally.

“I visited former president Shimon Peres together with [senior PA official] Hussein A-Sheikh and explained the situation to him, telling him that he had to stop the humiliation and insulting of Palestinian athletes. But nothing helped, and the Israeli side is not willing to change its behavior. We have asked that they allow us to run our athletic affairs freely, and it’s in the Israelis’ hands now. The ball is in the Israeli prime minister’s court.”

On Rajoub’s desk is a soccer ball autographed by Sepp Blatter, “to my friend, General Rajoub.”

Netanyahu said he would tell Blatter about racist, anti-Jewish statements that you made.

“Bibi does not exactly have a silver tongue. Instead, he makes racist statements. It takes one to know one. I suggest that Mr. Netanyahu take a look at himself and see how racist he is, how he is leading whole segments of Israeli society toward racism and fascism. That’s why you deserve to be suspended from FIFA.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with FIFA President Sepp Blatter, May 19, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube/IsraeliPM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with FIFA President Sepp Blatter, May 19, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube/IsraeliPM)

If Rajoub and the Palestinian Authority succeed in getting Israel suspended, it could lead to a wave of anti-Israel activity on the international diplomatic arena, with no use of violence on their part. Rajoub knows very well that this method works and brings the Israeli public out of its apathy over the occupation. “I tell you, the FIFA Congress is definitely with us,” he says. “There is a consensus there against discrimination and racism. To a young [Palestinian] person, that’s what characterizes Israeli society right now.”

At 2 p.m., around the same time of Blatter’s arrival in Israel on Tuesday, dozens of protesters gathered in Ramallah’s Manara Square to call for Israel’s suspension from FIFA. Some carried signs calling to for Israeli soccer clubs in the settlements to be barred from taking part in FIFA activities. Others carried signs bearing Rajoub’s photograph.

Blatter met with Netanyahu on Tuesday. On Wednesday he met with Rajoub and with Abbas, and conveyed Israel’s proposals. But Rajoub, who has already gotten threats from Israel regarding his request to FIFA, says that he will accept no compromise.

AFP contributed to this report.

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