Peace-making mission of FIFA chief crumbles
JERUSALEM - FIFA president Sepp Blatter saw his Mideast peace-making mission crumble on Wednesday after the Palestinians vowed to press efforts to have Israel suspended at the upcoming world football congress.
After months of rising tensions over plans by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) to have its Israeli counterpart expelled from FIFA, Blatter himself flew into the region on Tuesday on a mission to resolve the dispute.
At issue is a Palestinian complaint over Israeli restrictions on the freedom of movement of its players and footballing officials.
The Palestinians are also protesting the existence of five Israeli teams in settlements which are built on land they want for a future state. The clubs play in the third and fourth divisions.
Blatter first met in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who pledged to take a number of steps to ease the situation.
But after talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, it quickly became clear it was not enough, with PFA chief Jibril Rajoub saying they would not take the proposal off the agenda for the upcoming FIFA Congress.
"We will keep the proposal on the agenda (of the upcoming FIFA Congress) for sincere and open discussions by the FIFA member associations," Rajoub said at a joint press conference with Blatter.
"There will be no compromising on free movement of our athletes and officials."
The Palestinians want the matter to be put to a vote at the annual FIFA Congress where it will only pass if it gets the support three-quarters of the 209 member federations.
Israel has denounced the Palestinian move as an attempt to mix politics and sport, saying such matters had not place within FIFA.
Rajoub's remarks were a clear indication that Blatter's peace efforts had failed, although the world football chief vowed he would not give up.
Blatter has spoken out against suspending the Israeli FA, saying such a move would damage the organisation as a whole and could set a "dangerous precedent".
"If one association is not happy with the other and claiming whatever they claim, and it is a political matter that cannot be solved by FIFA statutes... then (a suspension) would be a dangerous precedent," Blatter said, citing concerns that other federations in conflict zones could follow suit.
"This is not football. That's why I'm on a peace mission."
Blatter, 79, is seeking reelection at the upcoming FIFA Congress which begins on May 28 in the hope of winning a fifth term in office.
During his talks with Abbas, Blatter told him Israel had agreed to station people at checkpoints "to facilitate the movement of football people" and to establish a VIP service to allow players to move between the West Bank and Gaza.
They also agreed to create a special ID card for Palestinian players, and to set up a third-party working group comprising Israeli, Palestinian and FIFA representatives which would "meet monthly to analyse and monitor the situation".
But he said that the question of the five settlement teams had not been resolved, describing it as "a delicate problem".
"This has nothing to do with FIFA statutes but it could (do) if this would mean a national association is playing on the territory of another national association without having received permission to do so," he said.
"I had a meeting today with president Abbas and we discussed this matter and this is a big question mark."
Explaining the decision to press ahead with the resolution, Rajoub said that all other avenues for resolving the matters had not borne fruit and that it was up to FIFA member associations to decide.
"We are convinced that most FIFA members share our views on the situation and will support our proposal... because racism is one of the greatest dangers that football faces at the present time," he said.
Blatter also proposed the idea of the two national teams playing a "match for peace" - with Netanyahu welcoming the idea but Rajoub saying the conditions were not yet ready for such a game.
"It's a creative idea, I like it," he told Blatter.
"But we have to pave the road for that, we have to prepare the environment. But this should be an endgame, this should be a purpose for you and I urge you not to give up," he said.
The Palestinians say they are confident of winning support from many federations within the congress, notably those based in Africa and Asia, recalling how the Asian Football Conference banned Israel in the mid-1970s.
Israel's Football Association, which was recognised by FIFA in 1929 during the British Mandate, was admitted to the Asian Football Conference in 1954, but expelled 20 years later following pressure from Arab and Muslim members.
It was admitted to UEFA in 1994.