Gianni Infantino about to face toughest task as Palestine issue comes to a head

Six Israeli clubs are based in West Bank settlements which are deemed illegal

Israeli youth players from the Aroni Ariel football club attend a training session at their stadium in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel. At an average match, Ariel City attract fewer than 100 spectators at home in a West Bank settlement -- yet they have been called one of Israel’s ‘most important’ football clubs. That’s because they, along with five other Israeli clubs, play their matches in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, considered occupied land by the international community. Photo: Joe Guez/Getty Images

Israeli youth players from the Aroni Ariel football club attend a training session at their stadium in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel. At an average match, Ariel City attract fewer than 100 spectators at home in a West Bank settlement -- yet they have been called one of Israel’s ‘most important’ football clubs. That’s because they, along with five other Israeli clubs, play their matches in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, considered occupied land by the international community. Photo: Joe Guez/Getty Images

 

In the first of a new weekly series, Irish Times soccer correspondent Emmet Malone looks at some of the issues concerning the beautiful game

In the year since he was elected to the job, Gianni Infantino has been doing what Fifa presidents like to do most: making himself popular.

The former Uefa General Secretary has been packing in the photo ops, associating himself publicly with the stars of the game and actually over-delivering on his promise to expand the World Cup to 40 teams. Things might just be about to get a bit trickier for the 46 year-old.

Last month he promised that the game’s governing body would make a call on how it would react to the growing tensions between Israel and Palestine. A committee, chaired by the South African veteran anti-apartheid activist Tokyo Sexwale was set up to consider the matter and report back but when it failed to meet its deadline last month (amid reports a full meeting could not even be successfully convened) Infantino said it would be given one more chance after which, he said, “we will make a decision”.

It will be a tough call for him to make. Tensions have, unsurprisingly, simmered between the Israeli and Palestinian associations for many years and Infantino’s predecessor, Sepp Blatter, was previously obliged to work with the likes of the IOC’s Jacques Rogge in order to have the Israelis ease restrictions on the movement of athletes and sports equipment in the region.

Now, the highly politicised difficulties between the two organisations have come to a head over the issue of clubs from the Israeli league, six of which are based in West Bank settlements deemed illegal under international law.

Even if they were not, Fifa has effectively recognised the territories involved as being within the jurisdiction of the Palestinian association and, under Fifa’s rules, clubs from one association may not base themselves in the area of another’s unless the latter grants its permission, which, of course, the Palestinians have not.

Their association’s president, Jibril Rajoub, has twice threatened in recent years to push for votes at Fifa Congress on the expulsion of Israel over the issue but has been talked down on each occasion; placated, in part, by the promise of impending action.

Now, on the back of December 23rd’s United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 on Illegal Settlements, there are suggestions that Rajoub believes the time to press his case is right and he has suggested that the Palestinians might take the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“Settlement clubs are totally against the statutes of Fifa, human rights, and a clear-cut violation of UN Security Council resolutions – there will be no compromise on this issue,” he told the Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.

“The Israeli federation can make a unilateral decision and relocate the six clubs, avoiding sanctions, or it can choose to continue its crazy position and go head-to-head with Fifa. I don’t want to cause suffering to the Israeli players, but the Israeli players should look to see what is happening to a neighboring federation.”

To date, Fifa has done absolutely nothing to suggest that going “head to head” with it is remotely “crazy”. Israel has certainly taken on more daunting opponents but losing at CAS could be embarrassing for it and an unfavourable outcome might oblige Fifa to go further than Infantino would like to as long as he retains control over the situation.

His room for manoeuvre appears to be dwindling, in any case, with the local representative of international NGO Human Rights Watch observing that the UNSC resolution now “makes it much more difficult for Fifa to pretend that allowing Israel to hold games in the settlements is neutral or acceptable.”

The Israeli right, meanwhile, dismiss Fifa’s right to intervene and revile Rajoub, also the Chairman of the local Olympic Committee, a former adviser to Yasser Arafat and a member of Fatah’s Central committee since 2009 as a “terrorist” on the basis that he has spent many years in prison having originally been sentenced to death for throwing a grenade at an army truck.

But Rajoub’s moral position has been strengthened by the passing last week of the hugely controversial new Settlement Law which Israeli newspaper Haaretz describes as allowing “Israel to declare private Palestinian land state property”.

Infantino, at this point, might be forgiven for wishing he had not said he would make a decision. Sexwale’s committee is unlikely to make the call any easier but when push comes to shove Fifa, for all its love of smiling faces and photo opportunities, surely has to come down on the side of international, and its own, law.

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