JAMES M DORSEY —- Israel and Palestine are gearing up for a crucial battle in FIFA about the status of Israeli-occupied territory that is likely to foreshadow President Donald J Trump’s efforts to revive long-stalled Middle East peace efforts.

At stake in the battle that will play out during FIFA’s annual congress in May in Bahrain is the status of six West Bank Israeli settlement teams that play in Israeli leagues.

The Palestine Football Association and human rights groups charge that the Israel Football Association’s policy violates FIFA rules as well as international law that sees Israeli settlements as illegal.

Jibril Rajoub addressing a past FIFA Congress

Israel has argued that Israeli occupied territory involves disputed lands whose future should be determined in peace negotiations.

Past efforts by the PFA to have Israel’s FIFA membership suspended have stranded, prompting years of failed efforts by the world federation to negotiate a solution.

FIFA negotiator Tokyo Sexwale, whose mandate ends in May, all but declared failure in a report submitted this week to the world body.

Three options

Sexwale proposed three options in a last-ditch effort, all of which are unlikely to provide relief, sources said.

Reportedly Sexwale suggested that FIFA could take the legal risk of throwing in the towel, give Israel six months to rectify the status of the disputed clubs, or continue to attempt to achieve a negotiated solution.

Accepting the status quo would revive efforts by the PFA and human rights groups to lobby for a sufficient majority to suspend Israel’s membership at a future congress.

A suspension would complicate Trump’s Middle East peace efforts. It would put Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, in a bind.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have a vested interest in the Trump administration’s tougher attitude towards Iran. Gulf-backed bi-partisan draft legislation that would tighten US sanctions against Iran is pending in the US Congress.

Gulf states as well as Egypt have backed Trump’s peace-making efforts.

Trump called during last month’s visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for a halt to expansion of West Bank and Jerusalem settlements despite adopting an overall far more pro-Israeli attitude than past administrations.

The President has also invited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to visit Washington in the near future.

Egyptian security last month barred PFA president and Palestinian sports czar Jibril Rajoub entry to Egypt to attend a counter-terrorism conference.

Rajoub, a close associate of Abbas, is widely seen as a possible future Palestinian president.

UN resolutions

The PFA and Human Rights Watch have argued that granting West Bank settlement teams the right to play in Israeli leagues violates United Nations Security Council resolutions, including last’s December’s condemnation of Israeli settlements, as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention that sets rules for administering occupied territory.

They also argue that tolerating the status quo would contradict FIFA’s adoption of United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Finally, the PFA and Human Rights Watch note that FIFA statutes prohibit a member association from holding games on the territory of another member association without permission.

European federation UEFA blocked Russia from incorporating teams from occupied Crimea in its national league competitions on those grounds.

Giving Israel six months to rectify the situation could offer a temporary, face-saving compromise.

By implication, it would acknowledge that allowing West Bank teams to play in Israeli leagues constitutes a violation.

While Israel is certain to reject the notion, it would buy it time at a moment that countering the growing Boycott, Diversification and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to penalise Israel for continued occupation of the West Bank has become a priority.

Israel recently emulated Trump’s disputed ban on travel to the United States from six majority Muslim country. It declared a ban on travel to Israel by BDS supporters.

It would also allow Arab and Gulf states to give Trump’s peace-making efforts a chance.

Suspension of Israel by FIFA would constitute a major Palestinian victory in long-standing efforts to isolate Israel in international organizations.

Buying into Sexwale’s proposal for a six-month period is a risky undertaking for all.

Vote proposal

Rajoub was criticized for his dropping last year of a proposal to suspend Israel after he realised that he could not muster a positive vote in the FIFA congress.

Ultra-nationalists in Netanyahu’s cabinet who advocate annexation of the West Bank would no doubt reject the compromise.

Extending negotiations essentially kicks the ball down the road at a time that Israel is emboldened by  Trump’s pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim stance while Palestinians are going through the motions with little confidence that peace-making will produce tangible results.

There is little reason to assume that negotiations would succeed where they have failed without real progress in overall peace-making.

FIFA is, nonetheless, likely to opt for the road of least resistance, extending negotiations, despite growing criticism of Israel among FIFA members.

PFA vice chairwoman Susan Shalabi told the Jerusalem Post that Sexwale’s FIFA monitoring committee would hold a last-ditch meeting in early May in advance of the FIFA congress.

Rajoub told Al Jazeera that failure to resolve the issue would leave the PFA with “no other choice: we will go to the congress next May in Bahrain and ask for the imposition of sanctions against the Israeli federation.”

Legal threat

The PFA would be bolstered in its effort by the fact that Bahrain, it’s image already tarnished by human rights violations, may want to avoid the embarrassment of having hosted a group that fails to support Palestinian claims.

FIFA could be vulnerable to legal action that would complicate Israeli efforts to avert suspension if the group opts for maintaining the status quo or fails to extend negotiations.

Irrespective of which way FIFA decides to proceed, Israel will be fighting a backbench battle in FIFA as well as other international organizations as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

Counting on US backing could prove to be a slippery slope with the Trump administration losing leverage and credibility as it plans cutbacks in financial support for the United Nations as well as the State Department, the US’s key diplomatic agency.

# # # Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The timescale


May: FIFA commits to findng a solution to Israel/Palestine football issues including the settlement clubs.


May: FIFA establishes a monitoring committee to address Israel/Palestine issues and report back within one year.


May: New FIFA president Gianni Infantino extends the committee mandate “for a couple of months” and commits to bring a solution to the FIFA Council in October 2016.

October 14: FIFA Council meets but Infantino postpones decision to the next Council meeting in January 2017. FIFA committee chair says final report on the issue will be ready in November.


January 10: FIFA Council meets but no report is presented. Infantino says that “within one month from now we expect the final report . . . and then we will take a decision.”

March 20: The two FA delegations meet at FIFA. Afterwards the Palestine FA says “the ball is in the Israeli court.”