In the end, the Palestinians backed down on their attempt to get Israel expelled from FIFA, international soccer’s ruling body. Former terrorist Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian soccer federation, told the FIFA Congress today that, under pressure from other countries, he withdrew the request for a vote on Israel’s expulsion. For the moment, that ends the threat the Jewish state will be thrown out of the governing body of the world’s most popular sport. That’s a great relief to Israelis who were rightly concerned about the possibility of a step that would be an emotional blow to the country as well as a highly symbolic move that would accelerate the movement to isolate it. But no one should think this marks the end of the campaign against Israeli soccer. More to the point, it’s important to unravel the origins of this dispute and what it means. The effort to kick the Israelis out of world soccer is just one more indication that the Middle East conflict isn’t about borders or settlements but a desire to wipe Israel off the map.
In the end, as Ben Cohen predicted here earlier this week, the corruption scandal that has devastated FIFA may have played a role in the pressure exerted on the Palestinians to stand down. With the entire structure of world soccer tottering, the last thing FIFA needed was a boycott of Israel that might have triggered counter-measures by friends of the Jewish state and embroiled it in a dispute that would have done it little good.
Moreover, the core dispute between Israel and those in charge of Palestinian soccer had already been resolved before the FIFA Congress convened. The Israeli government offered to set up a process by which Palestinian soccer players could move more easily between the West Bank and Gaza as well as between the territories and Israel. The difficulties players encounter is an annoyance but was caused by the constant threat of Palestinian terrorism directed against Israel. Moreover, on top of that the Israelis also offered to make it easier to import soccer equipment into the West Bank and to help facilitate the construction of sports facilities for Palestinians. Those moves, which went above and beyond what reasonable observers, would expect Israel to make under the circumstances. But the resolution of the transit issue wasn’t the Palestinian goal since they persisted in their expulsion effort even after these concessions were offered.
This is important because it shows that this dispute is no different from any other element of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Every time Israel makes a concession, whether by setting up the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords, offering statehood as it first did in 2000 or withdrawing from all of Gaza, it not only gets no credit. Israel’s willingness to be compromise only seems to generate more hostility from its foes and their foreign cheerleaders.
The problems of athletes was only a pretext for another straightforward effort to ostracize the Jewish state and stemmed from a political culture that regards the war on Zionism to be indistinguishable from the assertion of Palestinian identity. Indeed, after Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian soccer federation announced at the FIFA Congress that he was backing off on the expulsion effort, his Israeli counterpart Ofer Eini asked him to join him on the podium and shake hands. Rajoub refused and went on to insist on what was really the core demand that he was shooting for: Forcing the Israelis to disband five youth teams that exist in West Bank settlements.
It’s instructive to note that of the five teams, only one (in Kiryat Arba) is located in a place that is not in a Jerusalem suburb or settlement bloc close to the 1967 lines that everyone, even President Obama, concedes would remain part of Israel in the event that a peace deal was ever signed. But what the Palestinians want is to delegitimize these players as well as all those in Israel. Doing so does nothing for Palestinian sports but it does advance an agenda whose only purpose is to falsely brand Israel a pariah state.
As I wrote earlier this month, Rajoub is no former jock or veteran sports executive but rather someone who earned his prestigious post by taking part in and planning terror attacks as well as serving as an aide to Yasir Arafat. For the Palestinians, sport is, like every other aspect of society, just another venue for pursuing their goal of eradicating Israel. Rajoub said himself that “resistance” — which Palestinians define as the effort to destroy Israel and not force it out of the West Bank — will continue. Rajoub’s stand is part of a general campaign among Palestinians to stamp out all efforts to foster co-existence even as Israelis try to reach across the divide between the two peoples.
It is to be hoped that FIFA will continue to refuse to be co-opted into the war on Israel, but optimism about that may be unfounded. The effort to ostracize Israel is fueled by a rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and Asia. If, at a future FIFA Congress, a secret ballot vote is taken on expelling Israel, there’s no telling whether it would succeed. But before that happens, the United States and other Western countries that claim to support peace should send a clear message to the Palestinians that they will pay a price in terms of aid and diplomatic support if they persist in such efforts. The failure to do so will not only ensure future soccer disputes but also explains why the Palestinians believe there is no cost attached to their obstruction of peace talks and support for terrorism.