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Israel’s next battle will be over Olympics, diplomats say

After Palestinians withdraw proposal to ban Israel from FIFA, Foreign Ministry and sports officials warn Israel’s deterrence is eroding, saying attempts to de-legitimize Israel will continue in other fields.

While the fight over the Palestinian attempt to suspend Israel from FIFA has ended on Friday in Zurich, Israeli diplomats warn that the next battle is near – the Olympics.

“Rajoub has three roles – he’s the head of the football association, the minister of sports and the chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

“The Olympics are in a year. Today it started with soccer, tomorrow it could be volleyball, handball or basketball,” the official continued. “We have to stay on our toes and realize there is now a political dimension to Israeli sports.”
60805850100791640360noPFA chairman Jibril Rajoub shakes IFA chairman Ofer Eini’s hand in Zurich (Photo: EPA)

Another lesson learned from the FIFA debacle, he said, “is the fact many organizations in Israel, which are a part of international organizations, will have to invest a lot more efforts in lobbying and foreign relations. They have to prepare for similar battles in the near future. It won’t end with FIFA.”

“My conclusion is that Israel must be diplomatically prepared to deal with fields and areas we have not had cause to deal with in the past, because the Palestinians are taking this issue of de-legitimizing Israel to new arenas and places – to science, sports, culture, arts, and others,” said Yuval Rotem, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Division who led the effort to thwart the Palestinian move to suspend Israel from FIFA.

Rotem’s people coordinated the work of Israel’s embassies over the past two months, with full cooperation from the Prime Minister’s Office and The Israel Football Association (IFA).

The lion’s share of the diplomatic activity on Friday was in Zurich, where IFA chairman Ofer Eini met with FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Palestinian Football Association chairman Jibril Rajoub in an attempt to convince Rajoub to withdraw his proposal from the FIFA Congress’ agenda.

Rajoub did so only after taking the stage and making a fiery speech against Israel. As a result, the Congress did not vote on suspending Israel but instead on the formation of an inspections committee to deal with the Palestinian complaints, which passed with 165 voting in favor and 18 against.

Rotem said these were “the new diplomatic battles.” He asserted that “this battle is no longer in the places we know, like the UN, but at the halls of municipalities all over the world seeking to boycott Israel, at cultural institutions, at basketball courts, at workers unions, at supermarkets, and more. These are new fronts and we’ll have to find new tools to fight there.”

Foreign Ministry officials said the Palestinian failure at FIFA helps bolster Israeli deterrence. The Palestinians, they said, have once again seen that at the moment of truth, when Israel is being dragged to a confrontation on a topic important to it like the demand to suspend it from FIFA – it knows how to create the international alliances to thwart such a move, even in cases the Palestinians appear at first to have the majority.

This deterrence, the officials said, carries a heavy price: It erodes Israel’s standing in the world, forcing it to spend too much diplomatic credit and putting Israel in a situation in which it has to beg for the help of its friends in the world.

IFA chairman Ofer Eini told Ynet at the end of Friday’s dramatic FIFA Congress session that his conciliatory speech has garnered a lot of support from the different delegations and that many of the delegations’ heads told him he delivered a “knockout” to Rajoub.

He noted the decision to leave the issue of the five soccer clubs operating beyond the Green Line in FIFA’s hands rather than give it to the UN was another Israeli achievement. The compromise on the matter was reached in his meeting with Blatter and Rajoub shortly before the vote.

“I’m glad our proposal to have all pending issues remain in FIFA’s hands and not go elsewhere has gone to a vote and won with a resounding majority,” Eini said. “I kept saying politics must not be mixed with sports. Sports can be a bridge to peace and I mean this. I didn’t have a problem shaking Rajoub’s hand. The right thing for Israeli soccer is to work in full cooperation with our neighbors. I’m glad we came out with the upper hand.”

Israeli officials also praised Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) President Michel Platini, who they said should receive the Israel Prize for his help in securing Israel’s diplomatic victory at FIFA.

Yaakov Finkelstein, an Israeli diplomat from the Foreign Ministry’s team in Zurich, said the result at the FIFA Congress “was more of an achievement to Israel than the Palestinians. The Palestinians scored an own goal by putting too much pressure on suspending Israel from FIFA and eventually when they realized that they do not have the necessary majority, they decided to back off.”

He asserted the Palestinians “did not get any of their demands and decided to turn the entire thing to an internal committee in FIFA with representatives from Israel and the PA.”

Finkelstein said the Foreign Ministry led an “immense” lobbying effort with the help of Israel’s embassies and in cooperation with FIFA to convince the different delegations that the Palestinian proposal would cause damage to FIFA.

“Now the ball is in the Palestinians’ court. Eini reached out and now the Palestinians need to not only respond, but work in cooperation with the committee FIFA forms. There were such mechanisms in place in the past but they did not cooperate. They did not want to sign an understandings memo regarding free passage of athletes.”

Hamas, meanwhile, were unhappy with the results. Hamas Spokesman Husam Badran condemned the Palestinian Authority’s decision to withdraw their proposal to suspend Israel from FIFA, saying it was against the will of the Palestinian people.


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