KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- FIFA president Sepp Blatter is back in the Middle East in a last attempt to achieve some sort of progress and head off trouble at Congress in Sao Paulo next month.
Since 2011 Blatter has shuttled to and fro in pursuit of a working relationship between the two sides to ease problems over of freedom of movement for players and officials in and out of the West Bank.
The current negotiating spiral has been undertaken with assistance from the two relevant confederations from Europe (UEFA of which Israel is a member) and Asian (AFC for Palestine).
The Palestinians have been angered over the past year by seeing Israel host the finals of the European under-21 championship, by the shooting of two Palestinian athletes and the recent arrest of a member of the national squad preparing for the Asian Cup.
At FIFA Congress in Mauritius last year Jibril Rajoub, president of the Palestine football association, expressed his anger at a lack of progress on the fraught issue of freedom of access of athletes through Israel.
He warned that, without significant progress from Tel-Aviv, he would ask congress this year to expel Israel from membership of FIFA.
Blatter launched a new attempt at mediation which included support from UEFA (since Israel is a European national association) and the Asian confederation (of which Palestine is a member). Liaison officers were appointed to exchange information to try to avert documentation problems with the Israeli security services.
Blatter said recently: “There have been one or two incidents but, with good understanding, it works.”
Hence he and representatives of UEFA and AFC are back in Amman, the Jordanian capital today, for a visit which is due to include meetings with political leaders from both sides including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Blatter wants to reach a point where “the two national associations could sign a kind of memorandum of understanding” at Congress however time is running out out if Israel is to avoid a demand for punishment – even possibly suspension – from world football.
Only two weeks ago Rajoub told this writer that he still wanted Israel sanctioned without progress and he expressed bitter disappointment that FIFA mediation had stalled.
He said, at a conference in Jordan: “According to my own experience as a Palestinian and also as president of the Palestinian association, the Israelis never agree to anything without being pressured.”
Israeli sports officials have insisted that, however they might wish for progress, key decisions were taken at higher political, security and military levels.
Blatter has arrived in the Middle East just as Pope Francis is leaving after his own visit to the Holy Land. Blatter started in Amman where he met FIFA’s Asian vice-president Prince Ali.
Among wider issues for discussion were Jordan’s preparations for the 2016 Women’s U-17 World Cup with Blatter hailing the importance of the event for women and girl’s empowerment in the region “especially after Prince Ali’s successful campaign to allow headscarf wearing women to play in official matches.
“We at FIFA, and I the president, appreciate the work of HRH Prince Ali.”