by Hugh Lovatt and Martin Konecny
On Thursday, May 11, FIFA holds its 67th annual congress in Bahrain’s capital Manama, bringing together its 211 member state associations. As FIFA’s legislative body, the congress is due to address a number of pressing issues facing world football, of which the most politically sensitive will be the fate of the six Israeli football clubs in West Bank settlements. Together with Israeli restrictions on movement of Palestinian football players, this enduring point of contention between the Israeli and Palestinian football associations has increasingly implicated FIFA decision-makers.
The six teams in question—playing in the settlements of Givat Ze’ev, Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, Oranit, and Tomer—currently participate in the Israeli league system under the auspices of the Israel Football Association (IFA). However, the location of the settlement clubs and their pitches on the West Bank territory of the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) violate FIFA Statutes prohibiting one member from playing on the territory of another without its consent.
In addition, the fact that these teams play games in Israeli settlements illegally built on occupied Palestinian land has made FIFA complicit in Israel’s structural violations of international law and human rights in the West Bank. Such a situation runs counter to FIFA’s increased emphasis on human rights, its establishment of an independent Human Rights Advisory Board, its commitment to anti-discrimination measures, and its pledge to develop “a Human Rights Policy Commitment in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
The Israeli Counter
The Israeli government, dominated by pro-settler politicians and ministers who reject the establishment of a Palestinian state, has mobilized significant resources to defend the settlement teams and is actively lobbying football associations and governments around the world. As Haaretz has reported, in mid-April the Israeli “Foreign Ministry sent a cable to dozens of Israeli embassies instructing embassy staffers to try to persuade their host countries to remove the issue from FIFA’s agenda.” This has been matched by direct interventions by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, phoning up world leaders as well as FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino to prevent action.
Israeli pushback rests on two dubious claims. First, Israeli officials argue that FIFA’s territorial rules don’t apply to the settlement clubs since the Palestinians do not have permanent borders and the territory on which the settlement teams are located is in fact “disputed” rather than “occupied.” Second, they claim that the Palestinians are mixing politics with football by pushing for the exclusion of settlement teams.
These two claims have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere, and the overwhelming international consensus is that the West Bank—including the settlements—is occupied Palestinian territory, not part of Israel. The UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court all share this position.
Moreover, as the recently released independent legal opinion by the prominent German international jurist Andreas Zimmermann points out, “FIFA has already in the past consistently followed the practice of the organs of the United Nations, even where there was—contrary to the situation prevailing in the case at hand—much less of a consensus within the international community.” Such situations where FIFA has taken action on the basis of the majority UN stance include South Africa, Yugoslavia, and Crimea. Given how clear-cut the situation relating to Israel’s settlements ought to be—both in terms of international law and FIFA’s own statutes—it is precisely their continued presence in Israel’s league system that politicizes football. Israeli efforts to impose its own ideology on world football and force FIFA to keep breaking its own rules, disregard international law, and treat settlements as part of Israel has exploited FIFA’s good will.
Sexwale’s Game Plan
Pressure has steadily grown on FIFA to reach a decision after a number of delays and broken commitments over the last year. FIFA initially promised to resolve the issue by May 2016, then by October, then by January 2017. But every time it has postponed a decision.
This is not to say that FIFA has not made any progress at all. In 2015, the FIFA council set up a monitoring committee to resolve the above issue, headed by the South African and former anti-apartheid activist Tokyo Sexwale, and including IFA and PFA representatives. After more delays, Tokyo Sexwale presented his long-awaited report on March 22 to the FIFA monitoring committee. The report provides the FIFA council meeting on May 9 with three options for dealing with settlement clubs and strongly insists on the need for the FIFA congress to make a decision this coming Thursday.
The three options presented by Sexwale are: (1) maintaining the status quo; (2) giving the IFA six months to rectify the situation by “desisting to administer football in the territories in question”; and (3) continuing negotiations and leaving it up to the two sides to agree.
There are a number of obvious flaws with options 1 and 3, which Sexwale himself recognizes. Option 1 would endorse the violation of the FIFA statutes by the settlement clubs and renege on FIFA’s obligation under international law, thus undermining FIFA’s basic integrity. Option 3 is not only futile, since negotiations to find a compromise have already been tried and failed, but illegitimate since respect for FIFA’s rules should not be subject to negotiations, just as in football itself.
Moving the Ball Forward
The logical conclusion from reading Sexwale’s report is that Option 2 is the only one that should be put forward for endorsement by the congress. And indeed, this represents the best means of resolving the fate of settlement clubs. The only objection Sexwale’s report raises is the concern that Israeli authorities could take retaliatory steps to frustrate Palestinian football. But it is up to the Palestinian Football Association to decide whether it is ready to take that risk, and the PFA has chosen to demand that FIFA enforce the rules rather than accept the continued violation of its rights under the FIFA Statutes.
Sexwale makes an important point that “Option 2” is “in line with the Crimean resolution in respect of Russia because FIFA must be seen to be acting even-handedly.” A similar situation did indeed occur as a result of Russia’s attempt to integrate Crimean teams within the Russian league system following its annexation of the peninsula in 2014. But FIFA’s response actually was more intransigent in that case. Unlike the six-month deadline that Israel could potentially face, Russia was compelled to immediately exclude the Crimean clubs from its league.
Moreover, the situation of settlement clubs involves far more serious violations of international law and FIFA statutes than that of Crimean clubs, given that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law (unlike cities and town in Crimea).
Plans A, B, and C
Unless FIFA succumbs to Israeli political pressures, a vote to resolve the issue of settlement teams could well take place on May 11 at the FIFA congress on the basis of Sexwale’s report. But the Palestinians also have a back-up plan in case action is further deferred.
The PFA has in parallel tabled its own proposal to be voted on by the congress, aimed at ending the status quo with the settlement clubs. The PFA proposal requests the council to suspend the IFA from FIFA if it continues violating the rulebook by organizing football in settlements. Naturally, if Sexwale’s Option 2 is adopted and IFA stops playing in the settlements, there will be no grounds to proceed with suspension of IFA.
In the event that all these steps fail and political pressure prevails over FIFA rules this week, there is still a plan C in the form of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). As Zimmermann outlines in his report, any continuation of the status quo by FIFA opens it up to litigation before the CAS.
Yet, the longer FIFA allows the issue of Israel’s settlement clubs to go unresolved, the more its credibility will suffer, the more football will be politicized, and the more it will find itself drawn into the larger Israeli-Palestinian entanglement. This week’s FIFA congress should therefore be the moment to stand up for the integrity of FIFA’s own rulebook.
Photo: FIFA referee Massimo Busacca (Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Konecny is director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP), based in Brussels. Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow and Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council of Foreign Relations based in London.