KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- FIFA is confronting its own deadline for achieving the apparent political impossibility of resolving world football’s own stand-off between Israel and Palestine. The signs are not good.
For the past four years the world football federation has come up with all sorts of devices – task forces, commissions, monitoring visits – to put off the awful day when it would have to make up its mind.
All along it hoped that politicians would come to the rescue. Some hope.
Last May the latest procrastination saw the issue withdrawn from the congress agenda in response to a promise from president Gianni Infantino that FIFA Council would take a decision in the autumn.
That day is today/Friday when the 37-member council meets in Kolkata, India, at the World U-17 Cup to run through an agenda which includes the item: ‘Monitoring committee Israel-Palestine.’
The issue is historical. The manner of Israel’s emergence from the British Mandate in 1948 was contentious regionally and the sporting ramifications saw it expelled from the Asian Football Confederation on purely political grounds in 1974.
Palestine, while not formally accepted as a state by the United Nations but holding ‘non-member observer’ status, was admitted to FIFA in 1998.
Sports relations between Israel and Palestine deteriorated almost a decade ago when the Palestinians complained to international governing bodies about the hindrance of movement of athletes and sporting goods by the Israeli security authorities.
In 2010 and 2011 the then International Olympic Committee leader Jacques Rogge as well as Sepp Blatter, in the last years of his FIFA reign, indulged in shuttle diplomacy. In Blatter’s case a major concern was heading off repeated Palestinian threats to bring an Israel expulsion proposal to the floor of FIFA Congress (though it would almost certainly have failed to attain the necessary three-quarters majority).
A taskforce including leaders from both European federation UEFA (of which Israel is a member) and the Asian Confederation (which includes Palestine) managed only minimal progress. Blatter’s FIFA then empowered a monitoring commission led by South African anti-apartheid campaigner turned businessman Tokyo Sexwale.
Until then the issue had turned on the complexities of regional and international politics far beyond FIFA’s powers. However the appearance of clubs from Israel’s controversial settlements in its league system then handed Palestine a weapon to bring the issue directly to the heart of world football governance.
Settlements in the Occupied Territories of Palestine are considered illegal by the United Nations. Hence the Palestine Football Association claims the participation in Israeli competition of clubs from its own territory is a direct and deliberately flagrant contravention of FIFA statutes. Flouting FIFA statutes can be a suspension and/or expulsion issue.
Sexwale was supposed to report back to FIFA Council last January. In the event he could not do so and, Infantino claimed, a report was submitted too late to be considered by congress last May. Hence Infantino’s promise that FIFA Council will “make a decision” this week.
In Bahrain he said: “Following the discussion and the lively debate we had today, we thought and I thought I should put this on the agenda in October. We want to take a decision and we have to take a decision, whether the decision will satisfy one party or the other party or none or both, I do not know.
“But we need to make a decision.”
FIFA convention is that any decision by council should be consensual but the prospects of achieving even grudging unanimity on a body including nine representatives from UEFA (Israel’s ‘home’ confederation) appear minimal.
As ever, the atmosphere in the run-up to council has not been assisted by the virulently antagonistic proclamations of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel pressure groups.
Of course, whatever FIFA Council does or does not decide, all the sporting debate in the world is small stuff compared with the greater issues at play.