OPINION: FIFA and the sporting boycott of Israel

OPINION: FIFA and the sporting boycott of Israel

Palestinian FA President Jabril Rajoub and Israel FA President Ofer Eini shake hands after the former withdraw their motion to ban Israel from FIFA
Palestinian FA President Jabril Rajoub and Israel FA President Ofer Eini shake hands after the former withdraw their motion to ban Israel from FIFA
Simon Johnson set out his goals in a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish News.
Simon Johnson

Simon Johnson is Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council

When I became Chief Executive of the JLC, I could not have imagined how much my previous career in sport and television would have overlapped with my current role. First there were the anti-racism football scandals involving Nicolas Anelka and former Wigan Athletic Chairman Dave Whelan. But last week’s attempt by the Palestine FA(“PFA”) to propose to the FIFA Congress that the Israel FA be thrown out of world football, saw a genuine “coming together” of my contacts and experiences from my previous role on the World Cup Bid, for the benefit of my role in the Jewish Community.

At the JLC, one of our strands of activity is to counter threats to delegitimize and boycott the State of Israel. There was no question that the sporting boycott proposed by the Palestinian FA would have been the most visible act of boycott and delegitimisation that we had seen, which would have resonated around the world and led to a potential domino effect of other high profile boycotts. The PFA had tried this boycott in each of the last two years, but in 2015, there was more concern in Israel at the prospect. In 2013 and 2014, FIFA President Blatter had kept the proposal off the FIFA Agenda. This year, he seemed to have lost control of the issue and, perhaps focussed more on his presidential re-election campaign, he was unable to keep the proposal off the Agenda.

I was asked a month ago to help. I immediately contacted by Email as many Association Presidents and Confederations as I could, to ask them to oppose the proposal. The mixed response included some clear indications of willingness to oppose, some “nod and wink, you’ll be alright” type of responses and some fence-sitting. I also tried to persuade the FIFA Administration to keep the proposal off the Congress Agenda, but without success.

We tried to generate some media interest in the issue – but it was hard to have the threat taken seriously, even in Israel.

I had consistently been sceptical that the Palestinians could muster the support necessary to get the 156 votes which represented the required 75% majority to support the proposal. But, in the week of the Congress, I began to get nervous. Some FA’s that opposed the proposal began to call me to ask me to explain some issues raised in the Palestinian proposal. I worried that, if the matter were debated, a momentum might build up in the Congress that would have helped the Palestinians. A FIFA Congress is a dull, procedural affair. A bit of drama and passion from Jibril Rajoub, the PFA President, might have stirred the slumbering FIFA delegates to support them.

I decided to see if I could persuade some of my contacts to speak against the proposal from the floors of the Congress. I spoke to a few FA’s and Confederations and by Wednesday evening, it looked as though my small efforts in support of the vigorous efforts of the Israel FA, had secured to get the votes needed to defeat the proposal.

Then, the dramatic arrests and raids happened and everything went up in the air. The media became fixated on events in Zurich, although not necessarily on the Israel vote, which at least gave us a way to draw the issue to public attention.

It was a busy 48 hours leading up to the Congress. Behind the scenes, political, football and other pressure was applied to create a “deal” which would allow PFA to withdraw their proposal. In the end, this was the result, but not without a dramatic and hyperbolic speech from the PFA President on the Congress floor.

Why were we in this situation? Well, the statutes of FIFA contain a “boycotters charter”, since they allow any FA to propose the suspension of another FA and for that proposal to go directly on to the FIFA Congress Agenda. It is manifestly subject to abuse and manipulation for global or geopolitical reasons. That is why I called last week on FIFA’s Legal Committee to amend this provision so that only the FIFA Executive Committee can recommend suspension of a member.

In fact, all International Sports Federations should take the same approach. Sport should not be used as a back door way of resolving regional political disputes. The days of resolving conflicts by boycotts should be long past. FIFA found itself being used as a political tool by the Palestinians.

No Sport Federation should find itself plunged into the middle of regional politics. FIFA should change its statutes to avoid this happening again. Let sport provide unity and build bridges between nations and be a route to peace. 

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