JERUSALEM — With a bit of the drama of high-wire, last-minute diplomacy, the Palestinian Football Association was pressed to withdraw its proposal Friday to have Israel suspended from world soccer’s governing body and agreed instead to a compromise that allowed both the Israelis and the Palestinians to claim victory.
The feisty, heartfelt, disorderly debate at the 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich on Friday afternoon — briefly interrupted by a bomb threat — managed what last year’s round of U.S.-led Middle East peace talks failed to achieve: putting Palestinian and Israeli officials on a public stage and letting them seal a deal with a handshake.
Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, had been threatening for weeks to submit a resolution that would suspend Israel from the global soccer body. The resolution charged that Israel illegally restricts the free movement of Palestinian players, coaches and equipment between the Gaza Strip and West Bank and blocks their travel abroad. (In the past, Israel has charged that some players were aiding and abetting the Islamist movement Hamas).
If successful, the suspension would have sidelined Israel from international play. More important, it would have been a blow to Israel’s standing at a time when the Jewish state faces mounting international pressure to return to negotiations to address Palestinian aspirations for nationhood.
Both critics and supporters of the possible suspension compared the Palestinian gambit to moves to isolate South Africa during the apartheid era.
After taking the podium, however, Rajoub surprised the scandal-plagued FIFA Congress by withdrawing his proposal to suspend Israel, saying his colleagues had told him that voting on the move was too painful. Israeli officials said the real reason was that the Palestinians did not have the two-thirds of votes needed to succeed. Instead of seeking Israel’s suspension, the Palestinian soccer chief introduced a proposal to create a committee that would monitor Israel’s oversight of Palestinian travel, among other matters.
“I am here to play football rather than to play politics,” Rajoub told his fellow FIFA members. “I don’t want to score goals; I want to end suffering.”
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was in Jerusalem and Ramallah this month attempting to find a compromise position, applauded the move.
Ofer Eini, president of the Israel Football Association, said he was “delighted” by the withdrawal of the suspension proposal and endorsed the creation of an oversight committee.
“I don’t want to point any fingers at the Palestinian side. I think that football must serve as a bridge to peace, peace that we all want,” Eini said from the stage in remarks in Hebrew addressed at his Palestinian counterpart.
“Let’s leave it to the politicians to deal with politics,” Eini said. “You and I, let’s join forces and do the best football we can do on both sides. I want us to work together. I want us to collaborate. I want us to hug.”
The Palestinian soccer chief demurred — until after a vote to create the monitoring committee received support from 90 percent of the 209 members of FIFA. Thereafter, Eini and Rajoub shook hands but did not embrace.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored the handshake altogether. In a statement, the newly reelected Israeli leader said the Palestinian pivot “proved our international efforts paid off and brought about the failure of the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to expel us from FIFA.”
The Palestinian motion to create a monitoring committee also included language condemning alleged racism at soccer matches in Israel, where the Jerusalem team’s fans have been known to chant “Death to Arabs” during matches. It also urged the participation in FIFA-sanctioned matches of five soccer clubs based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, FIFA will do in response.