Why 11 guys named Moti playing pub league soccer are probably not the central obstacle to Middle East peace
Wednesday, FIFA brass maneuvered a delay on a vote pushed upon them by the Palestine Football Association that would condemn the Israel Football Association "on Palestinian rights violated by Israel.” That vote closely followed another proposed vote, killed earlier this week, punishing Israel for allowing six teams in Israeli settlements to play in leagues sanctioned by the Israel Football Association at the lower level of the pyramid. The six teams are located in Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Kiryat Arba, Givat Ze’ev, Oranit and the Jordan Valley. All of this follows an attempt in 2015 by the Palestine Football Associate to suspend Israel from FIFA for the same issue: settlements playing football.
There are several core issues at play to consider.
First: What exactly is the status of a territory that was captured in war but not annexed to the international community?
Second: If soccer players who live in one geographic state entity choose to play soccer in a league from an adjacent state entity, does that have some manner of binding political significance?
Third: Is the FIFA congress the appropriate place to raise these concerns?
Fourth: If the PFA was successful in punishing Israel for allowing soccer teams from settlements play, what practical impact would it have on the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
My disclaimer begins all of this discussion. I am most certainly going to present my views according to my own world view and experience. I’m a Zionist. I’m a rabbi. I’m fluent in modern Hebrew. I lived for two years in Israel. I’m the grandson of a holocaust survivor. My in-laws are Israelis and live in Jerusalem. I was once a witness to a cafe bombing in Israel (you could say I ‘survived’ a cafe bombing, since I was 300+ meters away, but thats semantics). I teach History of Zionism and Israel at a Jewish day school. I have a BA in Political Science with a focus on the Middle East.
I’m also an unabashed leftist, a supporter of the two-state solution, someone that profoundly believes in Palestinian rights, thinks that settlements are an impediment to peace, believes in an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and that Israel is slowly but surely losing its soul by trying to be a democracy while denying democratic rights to over a million Palestinians in the Occupied territories.
So, my cards are on the table.
The West Bank was captured in 1967 by Israel from Jordan in response to threats from the Gamel Abdel Nasser and the Arab League that they would wipe Israel off the map. Upon its capture, the territory that had previously belonged to Jordan had zero Jewish inhabitants, although Jews had resided in Hebron and other West Bank cities as recently as 1923, when a massacre by Palestinians drove the last of them out. Before then, Jews hadn’t lived in the West Bank since Roman times.
From 1968 until today, a mixed bad of fervent religious Zionists reclaiming ‘biblical Israel’, modern pioneers trying to do a 20th century version of homesteading, and Jewish immigrants who were given financial incentives from the Israeli government to live east of the so-called ‘Green line’ moved into the West Bank. Today, over 400,000 Jews live in territory Israel captured in the June 1967 War. Many feel they are living in some kind of ‘expanded’ version of Israel. Some, like many residents of Maale Adumim just East of Jerusalem, feel they are just living in a suburb of an Israeli city.
(It takes me longer to drive from my house to the Colorado Rapids stadium than it does to go from my mother-in-laws house in Jerusalem to Maale Adumim. That may not be very relevant, but it’s good to know at least for purposes of scale.) Although it may sound odd, some feel like the towns they live in are home, and in the event that Palestine became a state tomorrow, they’d probably stay and hope that their rights as a minority people in a Palestinian state would be recognized.
What all that means is, it’s really hard for anyone, anywhere, to definitively say what the settlements mean for certain, or where a resident of a settlement resides, and whether his travels back and forth across a line create political realities that should be debated in international forums. Sure, for the Israeli government they are a political tool used to pressure the Palestinians in all manner of ways. But if the territory is neither part of a Palestinian state nor has it been annexed by the capturing nation, well, what is it? If it is a captured territory, like, say, Taiwan, but some countries do not recognize its existence, like, say, China, what does that mean?
And what bearing does all that have on lower tier, club-level soccer? If a team in Northern Ireland wants to play in the Irish League, does that have territorial and sovereignty implications? If some folks in the Falkland Islands put together a football club and want to play in a league, do they have to travel to the United Kingdom to get a match, which is 8000 miles away, or can they play in Argentina, only 400 miles away? If they play in Argentina, do they degrade political claims by the UK to the Falkland Islands as the territory’s rightful owners?
Israel has it own complicated and mixed soccer leagues. One of the strongest teams each year in the Israeli league’s top tier is Bnei Sakhnin, from the Arab town of Sakhnin. The town is in Israel proper, but the entire population of the town, and the team, are Arab. If the team wanted to play in the Palestinian soccer league, would that be allowed? Would Israel object on the ground that it was a de facto territorial incursion into Israeli territory by Palestinians? I don’t think such claims would be taken seriously. Sometimes, you just want to join a league. By the way, I don’t think Sakhnin would ever jump from the Israeli League to the Palestinian one. Not because the residents aren’t proudly Arab and in favor of a Palestinian state, but because the Israeli league is much stronger and the players are paid much better. Also, Israel’s Ligat Ha’Al has a spot in UEFA, allowing its teams to qualify for the Champions League and the Europa League.
Another question arises over whether FIFA can or should handle an issue like this which deals with contradict claims of national jurisdiction over ancestral lands. On the one hand, FIFA has the right to determine that a player or a team belong in a certain place and not another. It is FIFA’s rules, for instance, that determine that Qatar cannot pay a billion dollars to Brazil and claim Neymar Jr. and Marcelo as rightful Qataris. It is also up to FIFA to determine whether a team in Crimea belongs in the Russian League or Ukrainian League - otherwise we might reach a day when Poland invades Germany in order to get its hands on Bayern Munich.
On the other hand, FIFA does football, not international border determination. For them to leap into this long running, sometimes violent, usually toxic, and always volatile conflict is probably both exceedingly foolish and terribly naive. If FIFA rules on an issue like this, they invite scorn and derision for playing overeager statesmen while simultaneously opening a pandora’s box of political claims. A country that doesn’t like the way its grievance was handled at the UN will bring it FIFA instead, and suddenly the debate over hand-to-ball has been replaced by the territorial claims of an 8th division club in South Ossetia, East Timor, or some rock in the South China Sea.
FIFA also has a whole host of its own legitimacy problems. For one, an organization in which each country, large or small, gets equal votes is prone to all sorts of shady shenanigans that lead to questionable decisions that may be financially motivated. How else does one explain Mahfuza Akhter Kiron’s election to the FIFA member council over Moya Dodd? Dodd has been a champion of women’s soccer for decades, while Kiron couldn’t name the winner of 2015 Women’s World Cup ( it was the US, guys.) This is the same FIFA that dismantled its ethics committee this week. This is the same FIFA that has had sharp and persistent rumors and accusations that the World Cups in Russia and Qatar were almost certainly delivered because of overt bribery - big fat manila envelopes stuffed with cash, slipped under hotel doors in Switzerland in the dead of night. These are your moral high-ground knights in shining armor; the ones that will champion the Palestinians. All while ignoring the imported slave labor being utilized to build Qatar 2022s stadia. In other words, FIFA doesn’t have any history of making moral or ethical decisions - on the contrary, it makes political and economic calculations. A vote to sanction Israel from a body with 31 Arab and Muslim states would look like politics, and nothing more.
(Also: Syria is a FIFA member in good standing. The Syrian regime has also murdered 38 Syrian soccer players and tortured hundreds more. Maybe FIFA wants to start its campaign for moral right by sanctioning Syria.)
Lastly, will a sanction of Israel have any effect? Probably not. It will be hailed as a symbolic victory for Palestinians trying to turn back the constant efforts of the Israeli government to settle and occupy more territory in the West Bank. They’ll be able to demonstrate that FIFA, today, doesn’t think a soccer team in Kiryat Arba is an Israeli soccer team. But that won’t cause those settlers to move back over the green line so they can play football. It won’t slow or stop Israel’s efforts to build over the green line. It won’t pressure the Israelis to sit and talk with the Palestinians about statehood or peace. If the sanctions were successfully voted on and applied, it most likely would result in the formation of an Israeli Settlement League, which is probably no better for Palestinians than having the settlers play in Israel.
The Palestinian claims here might be right and just - a team in Ariel is playing in Palestine, and by right s perhaps it should apply to play in the Palestinian league. But it’s nothing but puffery and posturing to make an issue this tiny into something so dramatic. There are better ways to proceed to peace.