This is a case where FIFA’s own laws need to be applied, not negotiated or bent.
On December 23, 2016, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2334, reaffirming the long-standing UN position that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories constitute a violation of international law.
In highlighting that the settlements are both illegal and an obstacle to peace, yet offering no tangible means to enforce its ruling, the resolution gives a further boost to the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. An increasingly prominent aspect of this struggle has been attempts to promote sporting boycotts and sanctions against Israel.
The consequences of the resolution could soon be felt in the sport’s world when FIFA, the governing body of world football, meets on January 9-10 and decides on the fate of the Israeli settlement clubs.
This could significantly help the BDS movement.
Since the launch of the BDS movement in 2005 there have been sporadic sports-based protests and calls for Israel’s expulsion from international sporting bodies.
However, it was not until recently – with protests against Israel hosting a men’s under-21 European football tournament in 2013, threats by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) to call for a vote on Israel’s FIFA membership (it did this in 2014 and 2015 but ultimately backed down both times), and demonstrations by fans of European clubs such as Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic in 2016 – that this has generated greater attention. The latest controversy is over the status of Israeli clubs based in illegal settlements.
Following the recent UNSC resolution, FIFA is under renewed pressure to take decisive action on this issue. Despite persistent UN rulings to the contrary, FIFA officials have previously referred to the settlements as “disputed” territory.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in September, there are six Israeli teams based in West Bank settlements. Both Israel and Palestine are FIFA members and under its rules a national association can operate clubs in the territory of another national association only with its consent, something Palestine has not granted.
The status of the settlement clubs was one of a number of factors highlighted by the PFA and BDS activists in previous calls to suspend Israel from FIFA. Yet it has developed into something of a standalone issue recently.
Simply demanding that the clubs are moved is not enough; instead Israel should be suspended from FIFA just as South Africa was.
In 2016 there was a growing campaign including the PFA, BDS groups, European parliamentarians, and civil society calling on FIFA to take action against the Israel Football Federation (IFA) if it continued to allow the settlement clubs to play in its leagues. The BDS movement highlighted the precedent of FIFA’s expulsion of apartheid South Africa in 1976.
This was supposed to culminate with a decision at FIFA’s meeting in October last year. The new FIFA head, Gianni Infantino, had even called resolving the issue a “priority”. But FIFA declined to take action, instead postponing a decision until January.
Sari Bashi, HRW’s Israel/Palestine advocacy director, noted that the UNSC resolution now “makes it much more difficult for FIFA to pretend that allowing Israel to hold games in the settlements is neutral or acceptable.”
There is already a precedent for action on such issues, with Crimean clubs previously prohibited from being incorporated into Russian leagues following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Should FIFA demand that the IFA move the clubs inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders or face suspension, it would present an acute political dilemma for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is beholden to the settlers.
If he takes no action he could also face a backlash from an electorate who have become accustomed to their teams participating in European leagues and international competitions.
Some, such as Bashi, argue that the dispute could be resolved by simply moving the clubs. For many this may be seen as the end of the issue.
However, prominent football writer James Dorsey has rightly criticised this stance as effectively constituting acceptance of Israeli settlement policy. Moving the clubs would represent a narrow technical victory in terms of adherence to FIFA’s rules but the settlements would remain intact.
The FIFA decision is important because the opportunity exists to send a clear signal that the Israeli occupation itself is unacceptable. Simply demanding that the clubs are moved is not enough; instead Israel should be suspended from FIFA just as South Africa was.
In the case of the anti-apartheid struggle against South Africa, on which BDS is modelled, the sporting boycott played a significant role in helping to isolate the ruling regime and increase pressure on it. Although originally concerned with racial discrimination in South African sport, it quickly expanded to focus on the apartheid system as a whole.
Suspension from FIFA would deal a similar psychological blow to Israel because of the powerful legitimising and normalising role that international sporting competition plays. Depriving Israel of the ability to use participation in European and international competitions as a means to launder its international image and present itself as a normal country could prove to have a significant symbolic and reputational impact.
Israel is clearly concerned about this prospect, given the extensive diplomatic lobbying efforts it undertook in 2015 when faced with a possible vote on suspension from FIFA and again in 2016 as the settlement clubs issue attracted growing attention.
Its hysterical response to the UNSC vote further demonstrated how worried Israel is about its international reputation, although not enough to actually change the policies and practices that damage it in the first place. Only an end to Israeli impunity and the imposition of meaningful consequences, including teams and players refusing to play Israeli teams and the suspension of Israel from international sporting bodies such as FIFA, will make this happen.
Aubrey Bloomfield is a writer and researcher based in New York City and a recent graduate of The New School international affairs programme, where he wrote his master’s thesis on the role of sport in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.