Amid the fallout from Argentina’s cancellation of a soccer game set to have taken place in Israel on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his usually loyal Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev were pointing the finger at each other over the decision to hold the game in Jerusalem, a move believed to have contributed to its nixing.
The friendly match was originally set to be held in the Samy Ofer Stadium in the coastal city of Haifa but was moved last month to the capital’s Teddy Kollek Stadium after “intense political pressure,” the Hadashot news television channel reported at the time.
The head of the Palestinian soccer federation, Jibril Rajoub, said that Israel’s insistence on holding the match in Jerusalem turned it into a “political tool,” and urged Arab and Muslim sports fans to burn photos and T-shirts of star player Lionel Messi if the game went ahead.
Speaking on Wednesday after Argentina’s announcement, both Netanyahu and Regev denied that the location of the game had anything to do with the cancellation, but each also said the other was responsible for the change of venue.
“The game was canceled for one reason only — threats to the life of the star [Lionel] Messi,” Regev said at a press conference at the Culture and Sports Ministry in Tel Aviv. “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 said the suggestion that moving the game to Jerusalem had brought about its cancellation was “despicable” and a “lie.”
Speaking to reporters in London after meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Netanyahu echoed his culture and sports minister, saying that “Argentina pulled out because of threats on the lives of players.”
But while stopping short of blaming Regev for the debacle, Netanyahu said she was the one who insisted the game be played in the capital.
“I didn’t request or ask that the game be moved to Jerusalem. I don’t know the efforts that were made. Miri Regev asked, but didn’t demand, for the game to be moved to Jerusalem,” he said.
At the same time as the briefing in the UK and apparently unaware of the prime minister’s comments, Regev gave a very different version of events in an interview with Hadashot news.
“The prime minister is the one that sent a letter to [Argentine President Mauricio] Macri four months ago asking they come to play in Jerusalem,” she said. Regev was responding to the accusation that her ministry had agreed to pay the match 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.
Netanyahu did send such a letter, obtained by The Times of Israel and other Israeli media outlets, on March 12, 2018, in which he told Macri that he had “instructed the relevant authorities to make all the necessary preparations for the game to take place in Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined Thursday morning to comment on the letter or retract Netanyahu’s denial of involvement in the decision.
Responding to the cancellation on Wednesday, opposition MKs accused Netanyahu and Regev of politicizing the game by insisting it take place in Jerusalem.
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 MK Tzipi Livni said the cancellation 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.
Further rejecting the criticism, Regev on Thursday threatened to withdraw Israel as host of next year’s Eurovision if the annual song competition is not held in Jerusalem out of political considerations.
“I will recommend to the government that if the Eurovision is not in Jerusalem, then it won’t be right to host it,” she told public broadcaster Kan in an interview.