Why FIFA bottled out of enforcing its own rules on Israel

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Martin Konecny and Hugh Lovatt's picture
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As it has in Crimea, South Africa and Yugoslavia, FIFA should follow its own rules and the UN, and insist on an end of settlement activities

"This is a new FIFA. We are new people here, we act with facts not with words. Facts and actions speak louder than words…But what matters in the end is the decision taken and implemented.” With these words FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, kicked off the football organisation’s 67th Congress in Bahrain last Thursday.

FIFA is not only tolerating the continued breach of its rules, but also seems to be going out of its way not to enforce them

These words ring hollow when looking at how FIFA once again shirked the facts and avoided a decision on the question of football clubs in Israeli settlements. The clubs are part of the Israeli Football Association (IFA) and participate in its league system, but play on land that falls under the Palestinian Football Association (PFA).

This violates FIFA’s statutes according to which no football association can play on another’s territory without its consent. Yet FIFA is not only tolerating the continued breach of its rules, but also seems to be going out of its way not to enforce them.

Despite a two-year-long process, the establishment of a dedicated FIFA monitoring committee, and several broken deadlines to resolve the issue, FIFA last week postponed a presentation of an internal report on the matter and stated that it is still “premature for the FIFA Congress to take any decision”.

During a dramatic session of the congress streamed online, Infantino also blocked a vote on a separate Palestinian proposal to compel Israel to exclude the settlement teams. Palestinians subsequently vowed to take FIFA to court over Infantino’s blocking manoeuvre.  

The showdown in Bahrain followed extraordinary political interference within FIFA by Israel in the days leading up the congress. This included a phone call to Infantino by the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the lobbying of FIFA Council members by Israeli diplomats and even alleged pressure via the White House. All of this proved successful in postponing, once again, any FIFA action on the settlement clubs. 

Blame game

At the congress, Infantino effectively blamed the postponement on Tokyo Sexwale, the chairman of the monitoring committee, for not having finalised his report on the settlement clubs on time. Sexwale certainly has his share of responsibility for the endless dragging out of the process.

Infantino may not be an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he must know full well that a compromise on settlements between the two parties is simply impossible

But in fact, his draft report was presented internally this March, months after the original deadline set for last summer. According to an internal source, Infantino has insisted that the report consolidate comments received from the two sides in order to arrive at a “consensus”. This was used to justify the claim the report was not ready for consideration at this point in time.

Infantino may not be an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he must know full well that a compromise on settlements between the two parties is simply impossible.



Members of FIFA at the 67th FIFA Congress on 11 May (AFP)

When FIFA was asked to comment about Infantino's insistence on the report and whether this was used to justify the delay, a FIFA spokesperson directed Middle East Eye to a media release put out following the 11 May meeting.

'The council has committed to deciding on the matter already at its next meeting, on 27 October 2017'

- FIFA spokesperson 

The spokesperson also said that a majority of the FIFA Congress had approved the proposal submitted by the council which said that more time was needed to make a decision because "a consolidated report of the monitoring committee is not yet ready".

"Nevertheless," the spokesperson wrote in an email, "the council has committed to deciding on the matter already at its next meeting, on 27 October 2017."

But given FIFA’s long record of broken promises, it is unclear how final the deadline will be.

Bypassing international consensus

FIFA has tried to explain the repeated delays by pointing to the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in fact, Israeli spin aside, the situation is very straightforward, as far as FIFA should be concerned.

No government in the world but Israel supports its claims to the West Bank, the territory on which the settlement clubs are located. The same overwhelming consensus considers the settlements – in which the teams are based and play their games – to be illegal. Likewise, the Israeli claim that the Interim Oslo Accords somehow legitimises Israel’s de-facto annexation of West Bank territory is shared by no one.  

It should not be FIFA’s task to write its own reports analysing the conflict or determine territorial ownerships. It should simply follow the existing positions of the UN

But while governments are aware of these facts and legal determinations, FIFA has shown a decidedly weak grasp of such realities, and a lax regard for own rules.

This has presented Israel with an avenue down which it can advance its expansive territorial claims in a way that it could not do with any government or inter-governmental institution: if no governments are willing to treat settlements as part of Israel, maybe FIFA can be used to set a precedent.

As a sports organisation, it should not be FIFA’s task to write its own reports analysing the conflict or determining territorial ownerships. It should simply follow the existing positions of the United Nations as the body designed to deal with, unlike FIFA, such political and legal issues. But FIFA has chosen the former approach, enmeshing itself in the politics of the most sensitive and protracted conflict in the world.

FIFA’s reluctance to deal with a straightforward situation of international illegality and violations of its own statutes contrasts sharply with its speedy and decisive action following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

At that time, FIFA and UEFA (with Infantino as its then secretary-general) acted quickly to ban Russia from organising football in Crimea. It did this without demanding internal reports, monitoring committees, or lengthy negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian football associations. 



Young Palestinians hoping to play football in the Maale Adumim settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank are blocked by Israeli security forces as they try to enter the settlement in October 2016 (AFP)

FIFA has also taken determined action in the past towards South Africa and Yugoslavia in response to relevant UN resolutions. That FIFA has chosen to make an exception in favour of IFA and the settlement clubs shows the extent to which it has been prepared to sacrifice its own integrity for political expediency.

But it is not just Infantino that has protected the settlement clubs from the application of FIFA's rules. According to sources, European football (UEFA) representatives within the FIFA Council were also vocal in supporting the stance of Israel, a UEFA member, and the postponement of any decision.

Whether intentional or not, their support for Israeli settlements and teams clashes pretty dramatically with the position of their respective governments which not only continue to strongly condemn Israeli settlement activity, but also actively warn their domestic organisations (which include football associations) of the legal risks of any dealings with settlements.

When MEE asked UEFA about the representatives' support for the Israeli position during the FIFA Council meeting, UEFA responded: "The recommendation not to vote on the matter was taken unanimously by the FIFA Council and was ratified following a vote by the FIFA Congress."

What is the endgame?

Ultimately, FIFA really only has three options. It can keep trying to delay any decision on the matter. Although this has been its preference until now, it hardly provides a long-term solution to the problem and will become increasingly difficult with each missed deadline.

Alternatively, FIFA could accept Israel’s argument that the territory on which the settlements are located is disputed, or does not fall under Palestinian jurisdiction. Such a decision would lead FIFA alone into uncharted waters given that no country or international body has taken this position. It would also expose the international body to a wave of legal challenges.

FIFA’s final option is the only legitimate one, and also the simplest. It can stick to a rules-based approach by insisting that the Israeli Football Association end activities in settlements in line with FIFA’s statutes and UN consensus. This approach is also FIFA’s best means of avoiding further politicisation and further compromising its integrity by sinking ever deeper into the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.

- 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.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli youth players from the Aroni Ariel football club attend a training session at their stadium in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel in September 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.