JERUSALEM — The head of the world soccer association arrived in Israel on Tuesday in an attempt to avoid what could become a new frontier in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, said he was trying to find a solution to a motion submitted by the Palestinian Football Association to suspend Israel from the international body. The motion is scheduled to be voted on at a meeting of the organization next week in Zurich.
If approved by two-thirds of the 209 FIFA members, the motion could mark a success in what some are calling a “diplomatic intifada” by the Palestinians, the aim of which is to embarrass and isolate Israel in international forums, thereby pressuring ordinary Israelis to push their government to make a peace deal with the Palestinians.
U.S.-led peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down a year ago and seem unlikely to restart anytime soon. In the meantime, Palestinians have taken steps to join a variety of international organizations and have sought support for resolutions at the United Nations and the European Union in a bid to build support for Palestinian statehood.
Palestinians say Israeli restrictions on their movement, as well as military action in the occupied West Bank, have prevented their teams from playing soccer. They also say that the Israel Football Association has done little to combat anti-Arab racism inside Israeli soccer stadiums, and they decry the existence of five Israeli teams from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, developments most of the world’s governments view as illegal.
Blatter, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early Tuesday, told reporters in Jerusalem that he hoped to find a resolution to the problems raised by Palestinians before next week’s vote at the FIFA congress.
“One thing I can say is that football is more than a game. It has the power to connect people and construct bridges,” Blatter said. “I am here to construct bridges and make sure football is not dividing but is uniting.”
He declined to give details about his meeting with Netanyahu but said he would pass along a message from the Israeli premier to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom he will meet with Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub said that he had no plans to back down from the resolution and that he believed he would be able to secure sufficient support for it among FIFA members.
“The Israeli Football Association has tried to cover its ugly face with plastic surgery for its government,” he said.
Rajoub noted that there are precedents for FIFA suspensions. The association suspended, and later expelled, South Africa for three decades because of its discriminatory policies against blacks during the apartheid era. Yugoslavia was suspended in the early 1990s because of U.N. sanctions stemming from the Balkan wars.
“Blatter is optimistic there will be a solution, but the ball is in Netanyahu’s court; he is the one that calls the shots,” Rajoub said.
Rotem Kemer, chief executive of the Israel Football Association, said the Palestinians were holding the association hostage for acts committed by the Israeli government.
Kemer said the Palestinians were mixing politics and soccer and argued that his association had taken measures to support Palestinian soccer and fight racism. But security restrictions by the Israeli authorities were out of its control, he said.
“There are many conflicts around the world: Ukraine and Russia, Iraq, Syria, in Africa. Do we want every association to use its FIFA status to go against other federations?” he asked. “I am not sure FIFA really wants this. It is a sports organization that tries to stay away from politics.”
Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.