Next week at the annual FIFA Council and Congress to be held in Manama, Bahrain, member states are expected to deliberate and vote on a set of recommendations that include having the IFA (Israeli Football Association) thrown out of the organization.

FIFA—International Federation of Association Football—is the governing body of international soccer. It’s among the world’s most important sports organizations.

At issue is a two-year-long campaign by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and a host of anti-Israel ‘human rights’ groups to have FIFA suspend IFA membership on account of its inclusion of six football teams that play in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, what the PFA and its supporters call “stolen land.”

If FIFA reaches that decision next week, it would effectively leave Israel unable to play in international soccer tournaments.

Background: the Dispute Over Israel’s Six “Settlement Clubs”

The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and its allies have sought to compel FIFA to expel Israel from the association since 2015.

Back in May of that year, at the FIFA Congress in Zurich, the PFA had to withdraw its motion to oust the IFA after it failed to receive sufficient support.

At the time, FIFA agreed to create a mediation committee, headed by former South African minister Tokyo Sexwale, in order to resolve outstanding disagreements between the Israeli and Palestinian associations.

The most controversial issue for its consideration has been the fate of six Israeli soccer clubs that are based in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank.

The six teams in question play their home games in stadiums located in Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Givat Ze’ev, Oranit and the Jordan Valley. According to the watchdog group NGO Monitor, only one stadium is built on land privately owned by a Palestinian family. Even there, the land claim is contested.

But the PFA maintains that these six clubs, part of the Israeli Football Association (IFA), flout FIFA bylaws because they play on “sovereign Palestinian territory” and Israel allows them to participate in its other leagues (According to FIFA Article 72.2, member associations can’t play their teams on the territory of another member unless it receives the latter’s approval. They also can’t let these teams play in their own leagues if they don’t have this prior consent).

The IFA contends that the West Bank is disputed territory and that it’s beyond FIFA’s purview to determine Israel’s borders.

Israel’s consistent position has been that “politics shouldn’t be mixed with sport” and that an agreed upon solution should be reached via direct dialogue between the IFA and PFA associations themselves.

In recent months, FIFA has postponed making any decision on the fate of the six Israeli soccer clubs, preferring to bring the Israeli and Palestinian associations to a solution through mediation.

FIFA’s Council, the world soccer organization’s top decision-making body, has also put off the decision awaiting the recommendations of Sexwale’s committee.

The mediation committee met multiple times in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and abroad in the past two years but failed to achieve a compromise on the issue. So the committee is now prepared to submit its draft recommendations regarding the six Israeli settlement soccer clubs at next week’s Council and Congress meetings on May 9 and 11 respectively.

The first recommendation is to maintain the status quo—a sensible suggestion but one which PFA President Jibril Rajoub has emphatically called a “violation of international law.”

A second recommendation is to give Israel a six-month period during which it would relocate the settlement clubs out of the West Bank. Lack of compliance could then result in the FIFA Council’s unilateral decision to sanction the IFA.

The third recommendation is to allow the parties to continue talks in the hopes that they can reach an agreement.

Rajoub, the PFA, and their coalition of ‘human rights’ NGO supporters, are reportedly disappointed with these recommendations too, calling both stalling tactics. They want to see the six teams that play in the West Bank suspended. Better yet, they’re hoping that FIFA “immediately” endorse punitive action against the IFA.

In Rajoub’s words:

I would prefer that we go right to sanctions and to suspension.”

Lobbying Efforts By the PFA and Its Anti-Israel Allies

The FIFA campaign against Israel has been spearheaded by PFA president Jibril Rajoub, a politician who is a prominent member of the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah faction.

He’s long been involved in the Palestinian sports scene. But he’s also a former security chief who spent 15 years in an Israeli prison for throwing a grenade at Israeli soldiers (he was released in a 1985 prisoner swap). In addition, he has a long history of rejecting coexistence and any form of normalization with Israel.

The anti-Israel push at FIFA has also been supported by a wide array of NGOs affiliated with the global anti-Israel boycott movement.

[Pro-Palestinian Protest at 65th FIFA Congress | Zurich | May 29, 2015 | Credit: AFP photo: Michael Buholzel]

At their core is PACBI—the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel—and its “Red Card Israel” campaign which rejects as unworthy of support any effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to try to promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance.

In multiple letters submitted to FIFA (including one issued last week), the PFA and the NGOs involved in its campaign against Israel, have tried to take the moral high ground, falsely depicting their discriminatory stance against the Jewish state as a means for implementing FIFA’s statutes and “upholding its reputation as a champion of human rights.”

The real concern isn’t to improve the situation affecting Palestinian soccer, like players’ access to equipment or restrictions on athletes’ freedom of movement for training sessions and matches.

FIFA has conceded that these restrictions are typically not under the IFA’s control, as they’re the result of the necessary security precautions that Israel must take to protect lives (there have been a few notorious instances of Palestinian soccer players found to be connected to terror organizations).

However, these are issues in which reportedly “progress has already been made” in discussion between the parties through the auspices of FIFA’s Monitoring Committee for Israel-Palestine.

Any further problems could be resolved by consultation as they have in the past, and without having to kick Israel out of FIFA.

It’s also worth noting that there are over 170 Palestinian football clubs and sports associations. So Israel obviously isn’t stopping Palestinians from engaging in sports activities, and it’s not clear why anyone should believe that a mere 6 Israeli ‘settlement clubs’ (all of which are amateur adult and youth teams that play in low-level leagues) pose any hindrance to Palestinian soccer.

Bottom line: The PFA and its supporters insist that all they want is to see “football played on their land”. But Israel’s handful of teams and stadiums in the West Bank aren’t preventing this. Israeli soccer has been turned into a target in order to (a) further isolate and demonize Israel and its people; and (b) shame FIFA for crossing a ‘BDS picket line’ by encouraging Israeli-Palestinian sports as a route to peace and reconciliation, thus insufficiently emphasizing the ‘injustice of the occupation’. Basically, the call for FIFA to suspend Israel’s membership at next week’s meetings in Bahrain is merely the latest salvo in the BDS anti-normalization campaign against Israel.

Israeli Embassies and Israel Advocacy Groups Urge FIFA to Reject Anti-Israel Vote

Concerned that this time around the anti-Israel FIFA campaign will have newfound traction, Israel’s foreign ministry (MFA) has reportedly stepped up its diplomatic efforts to foil it.

Several weeks ago it sent cables to dozens of Israeli embassies instructing staffers to engage FIFA delegates in the countries where they are posted to “counter the unacceptable attempt by Palestinians to politicize the sport.”

The goal is to try and gain behind-the-scenes international support ahead of next week’s FIFA meetings; to convince delegates to call for the removal of the issue from the FIFA agenda or barring that, to get an assurance that they won’t support a vote in the Congress.

Israel is right to be worried.

As we highlighted in a prior post, the passage in December of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared all Israeli presence beyond the 1949 armistice lines as a violation of international law, has increased the likelihood that punitive anti-Israel boycott campaigns like the one at FIFA will be successful.

In addition, the Bahrain meetings will take place only a few weeks before Israel marks the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 war. Many of FIFA’s 200+ member associations will undoubtedly see suspending the IFA as a way to voice solidarity with the Palestinians and to punish Israel for continued ‘occupation’ of the West Bank.

If a vote takes place in the FIFA Congress, Israel’s chances of prevailing are negligible because that body’s composition is much like the UN General Assembly which routinely issues anti-Israel resolutions.

Its best bet is trying to head off a negative decision if the issue is brought before the Council.

Multiple pro-Israel advocacy groups have responded to the MFA’s call.

Last week, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) began a social media campaign, posting a video and a hashtag #LetIsraelPlay and urging viewers to share them to FIFA’s Twitter account and FaceBook pages:

On Thursday, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder also urged football associations worldwide to reject any forthcoming vote at FIFA regarding the standing of the Israeli Football Association. He also sent a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Here’s an excerpt, (the entire letter can be read here):

We appreciate the recent efforts by FIFA and Mr. Tokyo Sexwale, chair of FIFA’s Israel-Palestine Monitoring Committee, to find an equitable solution to any questions concerning the IFA. As you must be aware, the IFA has complied wholeheartedly and in good faith with all FIFA requests and initiatives to resolve outstanding issues concerning its relations with the PFA. Jews and Arabs play together on Israeli football teams and the IFA is proud of the mutual respect fostered among them by the beautiful game. The IFA brings Israelis and Arabs together in the only democracy in the Middle East that provides equal rights to Jews, Muslims, and Christians…With anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism on the rise across the globe, it is vital that organizations like FIFA continue to promote the values of sportsmanship, goodwill, and harmony between different communities and nations. As violent manifestations of racism and intolerance resurface in football stadiums, we must be especially vigilant in preventing toxic and divisive political agendas from undermining FIFA’s mandate of inclusion and camaraderie.”

The Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC) has also launched a campaign, under the theme “Tell FIFA to give hate against Israel a red card.” It claims to be working closely with Jewish communities in Europe and around the world and has created a social media initiative:

IJC President Vladimir Sloutsker has reportedly written to FIFA President Infantino along with Tokyo Sexwale asking them to speak out against the move to ban Israel which is “wholly contrary to the FIFA Mission ‘Football for all’. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

Like peace, football requires two sides. Whereas football can be a wonderful vehicle to promote peace, tolerance and friendship, this campaign will only promote hatred, breed intolerance and attack the State of Israel, the sole democracy in the region…FIFA should utilize the power of football to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together and promote joint peace initiatives instead of singling out, attacking and banning Israel.”

The organization United With Israel has initiated a similar campaign. On its website, there are links to post a message to FIFA’s FaceBook page and separate links to find your local football association. As noted on its site, members are encouraged to let FIFA know that they oppose it becoming a

forum for the kind of hateful discrimination being advocated by the anti-Israel boycott movement and the Palestinian Football Association (PFA).”

[United With Israel Social Media Campaign]

Lastly, Friends of Israel Initiative (FOII) has also written to Mr. Infantino to express its views on the “misuse of FIFA” and the danger to FIFA’s prestige from becoming “involved in a political fight.”

Calling any decision to punish the IFA “unfair”, the group also said that Rajoub and his allies were attempting to “kidnap” FIFA in order to “delegitimize Israel.

Particularly compelling in FOII’s letter is the claim that the disputed Israeli clubs are playing in Area C of the West Bank, which according to the Oslo Accords is under Israeli jurisdiction until a final status agreement is reached with the Palestinians:

Nowadays there is not an ultimate agreement including definitive borders. Therefore, the Israeli football teams which play in Area C do not violate FIFA’s statutes that prohibit a Member Association from holding games on the territory of another member association without permission.”

German Lawmakers Urge FIFA to Reject PFA’s Demands

As reported on Friday by The Jerusalem Post correspondent Benjamin Weinthal, a cross-party group of German parliamentary deputies have weighed in to urge FIFA president Gianni Infantino to reject the Palestinian campaign to oust Israel.

In a letter, the lawmakers assert that Rajoub was “misusing the sport for his own personal ideology.” The deputies further wrote that Rajoub’s “discrimination of Israel’s teams undermines the sustainability of the FIFA statutes that call for a fair and peaceful sport.”

Bereaved Israeli Families Submit Complaint to FIFA Against Jibril Rajoub

Here’s an interesting new development in the effort to compel FIFA to kick Israel out of the association: a group 30+ Israeli families who have lost relatives in Palestinian terror attacks have now submitted a signed letter to FIFA charging the PFA with rule violations, including incitement to terrorism and racist expression.

Specifically, the letter reportedly accuses the PFA and its president Jibril Rajoub of “falling foul” of two provisions of FIFA’s statutes and two of its Disciplinary Code.

Sponsored by One Family, an Israeli organization that offers support to bereaved families, the letter points to soccer competitions and tournaments held under PFA auspices that were routinely named in honor of Palestinian terrorists.

It also points to Rajoub’s incessant glorification of terrorists and his use of antisemitic language—such as comparing Israelis to “Satan” and making analogies between the Jewish state and Nazi Germany.

The bereaved families raise a valid complaint.

These days Rajoub likes to present himself as a moderate and a peacemaker, especially in English to international audiences (see for example his recent op-ed for Newsweek).

But his past actions and words in the Arabic to fellow Palestinians tell a different story.

Based on multiple reports produced by the watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch, Rajoub has spent years inciting violence against Israelis, praising terrorists, referring to Jews in a derogatory and racist manner, and undermining opportunities to use soccer as ‘bridge for peace’.

Of particular interest to FIFA should be the fact that several years ago Rajoub objected to the Peres Center for Peace’s effort to organize soccer matches for Israeli and Palestinian children.

He called such games a “crime against humanity.”

Serving as head of the PA’s internal security forces in the 1990s, Rajoub has been accused of using torture against political opponents. On his arrival to the U.S. last month, he was served a lawsuit by one of his accusers at John F. Kennedy Airport.

As a promoter of hate, FIFA should realize that Rajoub has no understanding of how sports can be a vehicle for peacebuilding.

Among the many examples: while serving as head of the Palestine Olympic Committee in 2012 he reportedly described as ‘racist’ the appeal to hold a minute of silence at the London Olympics to remember the eleven Israeli athletes massacred by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games.

Conclusion

Across much of the planet, soccer is a very big deal.

That’s true for Israelis and among Palestinians too, where a love of the sport is something that could unite both peoples—rather than divide them.

Israel’s football association has been a model for that. Its soccer players, men and women belonging to three religions, have long joined together to keep politics off the football field:

But these kinds of people-to-people grassroots activities that bring Jews and Arabs together to build trust and empathy are anathema to Palestinian leaders like Jibril Rajoub and to the anti-Israel global BDS/PACBI movement. It’s why over the last two years they’ve devoted so much energy into trying to bench Israel’s football teams.

This is a hateful “anti-normalization” campaign that decent, well-meaning people should reject because they intuitively know that, when it comes to sports, it truly must be “one world, one ball.” At next week’s FIFA Council and Congress, lovers of the game will have the opportunity to again affirm that simple truth.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman