Blatter Says Israel Ready to Address Palestinian Soccer Issues

Israel is willing to ease travel restrictions on Palestinian soccer players and personnel, FIFA President Sepp Blatter told reporters during a visit to Ramallah to mediate between the Mideast antagonists.

The Palestinians are threatening to table a vote at the world soccer body’s May 29 congress calling for Israel’s suspension from official international play. Blatter, who is also campaigning to retain his post at the congress, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday.

Israel has agreed to appoint an official dedicated to helping Palestinian soccer personnel pass through security checkpoints, grant VIP travel status for those moving between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and exempt football equipment imported for Palestinian squads from tax, Blatter said after meeting Abbas. The FIFA chief said he would continue his consultations with Israel officials.

“I do understand your concern and suffering, and football is suffering,” Blatter said in Ramallah. “These proposals I have mentioned, the Israelis agreed to it and said they will do it.”

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Israel says the Palestinians are trying to politicize the sport 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.

“The thing that could destroy the Football Association is politicizing it,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “You politicize it once with Israel, then you politicize it for everyone, and it will cause the deterioration of a great institution.”

Palestinian Football Association head Jibril Rajoub said that while he trusts Blatter’s commitment to ease the Israeli restrictions, FIFA will need to set up a monitoring mechanism to ensure the pledges are implemented.

“I hope this time Prime Minister Netanyahu reconsiders and understand it’s time to open a new page,” said Rajoub, a former security official. He said the proposal for Israel’s suspension will stay “on the agenda until our demands are met according to FIFA statutes.”

Suspending Israel from FIFA would require the approval of two-thirds of the organization’s member states, Blatter said at a Jerusalem press briefing Tuesday.

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