December 7, 2020 | The Jerusalem Post

It’s time to stop the Palestinian sports boycott of Israel

Jibril Rajoub's strategy to boycott and isolate Israel in sports had worked until this summer. But the reactions by FIFA and other bodies shows how weak his claims have always been.
December 7, 2020 | The Jerusalem Post

It’s time to stop the Palestinian sports boycott of Israel

Jibril Rajoub's strategy to boycott and isolate Israel in sports had worked until this summer. But the reactions by FIFA and other bodies shows how weak his claims have always been.

The bad news continues to roll in for Jibril Rajoub. According to an Israeli media watchdog, Rajoub violated the International Olympic Committee’s policy of political neutrality by condemning the “crime of normalization” with Israel and calling to boycott and isolate the Jewish state.

Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association and Palestine Olympic Committee, had, until recently, used these titles as a means to delegitimize Israel in the world of sports, and to then leverage that popular strategy to position himself as a successor to octogenarian Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Perhaps, his strategy is no longer effective.

Rajoub is a veteran politician. He rose to the rank of major general in the nascent Palestinian Preventive Security Forces from 1994-2002 and then served as Yasser Arafat’s and Mahmoud Abbas’s national security adviser until 2006. He switched careers to the world of sports in 2006, when he lost a parliamentary race to his younger brother Nayef, a Hamas leader. He became the head of the Palestinian Football Association in 2006 and the Palestine Olympic Committee in 2008.

Rajoub has never been afraid to mix politics and sports. He recently called the Gulf-Israel peace deal a “circus” and a “ridiculous, stupid, and cheap comedy” and referred to Arab leaders as “worms.” He then headed a Fatah party delegation to Istanbul for political dialogue with the terrorist group Hamas. Increasingly, Rajoub appears desperate.

Until this summer, Rajoub’s strategy had been a successful one. The UAE, Qatar and other countries have discriminated against Israeli athletes – earning them warnings and fines by international sports bodies since at least 2009. From at least 2013 through late 2017, Rajoub oversaw an abortive campaign to boot Israel from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, for alleged human rights violations. Rajoub’s efforts succeeded in creating the FIFA Monitoring Committee for Israel-Palestine. However, the committee’s report in October 2017, showed how weak Rajoub’s claims were against Israel, leading FIFA to dismiss his efforts.

But, the bottom truly fell out when Israel prepared to host the Argentinian national team in the summer of 2018, and Rajoub vowed “to target [Argentinian forward Lionel] Messi personally” to cancel the match. Protesters waved Messi shirts stained with fake blood outside Argentina’s training facility and burned pictures and jerseys of the Argentinian phenomenon. In response, FIFA handed Rajoub a $20,000 fine and a one-year suspension. Argentina withdrew from the match – not because it respected the Palestinian boycott call – because it feared for its players’ safety.

Rajoub’s foray into the world of sports continues to unravel. In October 2018, the UAE permitted Israeli athletes to compete under their own flag during an international judo tournament. This also marked the first time an Israeli minister visited a sports tournament in an Arab country and the first time “Hatikvah” – Israel’s national anthem – was played at a sporting event in the Arab world.

Adding to Rajoub’s frustration, professional soccer leagues from the UAE and Israel recently announced a cooperation agreement, just weeks after a peace agreement was reached between the two countries. This agreement comes on the heels of a Dubai club signing Diaa Sabia, an Arab citizen of Israel and the first Israeli to sign with any team from an Arab country.

Don’t expect Rajoub to go quietly into the night, however. As the secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, Rajoub still has a voice in the Palestinian political scene. And it’s a rather obstreperous one, at that.

On several occasions, Rajoub has endorsed resistance “in all its forms,” which is a euphemism for terrorism and violence. In 2013, Rajoub declared that, if given the opportunity, he would use nuclear weapons on Israel. In 2014, foreshadowing his thoughts on the current Arab-Israeli rapprochement, Rajoub declared, “Any activity of normalization in sports with the Zionist enemy is a crime against humanity.” And just last month, Rajoub called Palestinian terrorist leaders and prisoners with blood on their hands “giants.”

But Arab-Israeli normalization deals, now including the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, are making this kind of rejectionism seem more out of touch with reality every day – even with the Palestinians themselves. The entrenched Palestinian Authority leadership – which includes Rajoub – is increasingly unpopular among its own people, with 62% calling for President Mahmoud Abbas’s resignation.

What all of this means for Rajoub’s future is unclear. But the strategy of using sports as a means to isolate Israel appears to be failing. Rajoub’s goal of becoming the next Palestinian leader may similarly end in a shutout.

David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay.

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Arab Politics Gulf States International Organizations Israel Palestinian Politics