Pro-Palestinian protesters briefly interrupted the FIFA congress on Friday, with the governing-body set to vote later on whether to expel Israel from world soccer.
The two female protesters interrupted president Sepp Blatter’s opening address, waving red cards at FIFA representatives and chanting “Israel out!” before being escorted out of the hall by security guards. Earlier, a group of around 150 pro-Palestinian protesters had gathered to chant outside Zurich’s Hallenstadion before the congress started.
Palestine, which has been a FIFA member since 1998, wants the governing body to expel Israel over its restrictions on the movement of Palestinian players. It also opposes the participation in the Israeli championships of five clubs located in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. If the motion passes at the FIFA congress, it would effectively leave Israel unable to participate in international soccer tournaments.
For the motion to pass, the Palestinian delegation must win over three-quarters of the votes of the 209 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.
Speaking at the start of the congress, Blatter appealed for unity among football’s warring factions as he opened the congress of the world ruling body overshadowed by a major corruption scandal. He called for “discipline and fair play” from the FIFA representatives.
Blatter told delegates that the arrest of seven top officials in Zurich on Wednesday had unleashed a “storm”, but added: “Today I appeal for a team spirit, unity, so we can advance together. It may not be easy but that is why we are here today.”
“One association member demands that another association member is suspended,” Blatter said, according to Ynet. “On this point we must find a solution that will finally satisfy the two associations, but especially the Palestinians. Then we can say that we acted to extend the hand of peace.”
FIFA will hold a presidential election on Friday and Blatter is favorite to win having defiantly rejected calls by UEFA leader Michel Platini to stand down.
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 the 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.