The soccer pitch has become the latest diplomatic battlefield in the Middle East, as Palestinian officials campaign to get the sport’s governing body FIFA to suspend Israel from international competitions.
The Palestinians say Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement hamper training and matches, while players and personnel have been physically attacked by Israeli soldiers. FIFA President Sepp Blatter arrives in Jerusalem on Tuesday in an effort to forge a compromise.
“We have the right to practice sports without suffering any racism,” Palestinian Football Association Secretary-General Abdel-Majid Hijjeh said by phone. He described Blatter’s trip as “a final effort to ensure that Israel is committed on a political level to FIFA regulations,”
Israel counters that the Palestinians are trying to politicize the soccer arena as part of a broader diplomatic campaign to isolate the Jewish state internationally, after the latest peace talks between the sides collapsed a year ago.
“A political dispute between countries threatens to cross the lines and invade the sports field, when it is clear to one and all that we as an association are unable, to our regret, to help in finding a political solution,” Israel Football Association President Ofer Eini said in an e-mailed statement. “A boycott is not a game, a boycott is not a solution.”
Blatter is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The FIFA chief has rejected calls for Israel’s suspension while asking it to ease some travel restrictions on Palestinians. Blatter, who has come under fire amid allegations of corruption at FIFA, describes the Israel dispute as the biggest challenge ahead of his bid to retain leadership of the soccer body at its congress later this month.
Soccer is Israel’s most popular sport, and it’s no stranger to politics. One of the country’s top clubs, Betar Jerusalem, has faced charges of prejudice over its unwillingness to field Arab players, and the racist chants its fans direct towards Arabs on other teams.
Israel has itself sought to turn soccer into a political issue. In August last year its ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, challenged FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar while the Gulf nation continues to supports the Islamist group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union.
While Qatar has no diplomatic relations with Israel, it funds a soccer club in the country based in the Arab town of Sakhnin, which plays in a stadium named after the Qatari capital, Doha.