April 1, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Indonesia scores own goal with hostility to Israel

April 1, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Indonesia scores own goal with hostility to Israel

Attempting to ban Israeli athletes proved to be a costly own goal for Indonesia. On Wednesday, FIFA stripped Indonesia of hosting duties for the under-20 soccer World Cup due to Jakarta’s inability to guarantee Israel’s unhindered participation in the tournament.

The collision was set in motion last summer when Israel’s team qualified for the tournament due to be held this spring. Jerusalem and Jakarta have no direct relations, but the world’s most populous Muslim country is a prime candidate to sign a normalization agreement with Israel, building on the progress of the Abraham Accords.

At first, it seemed the tournament might proceed without trouble. While some Indonesians welcomed the Israelis, others were not excited about the Israeli team’s arrival. On March 14, the governor of Bali, where some of the games were slated to be played, called on Indonesia’s minister of youth and sports to bar entry to the Israeli team. Another Indonesian governor issued a similar call. A week later, several dozen protesters in Jakarta railed against allowing the Israeli team to compete.

It was a very small protest for a country with roughly 280 million inhabitants, but it was enough to spook FIFA.

Last Sunday, soccer’s world governing body canceled the ceremony, scheduled for Thursday in Bali, to determine the matchups for the tournament. After desperate Indonesian attempts at damage control, FIFA announced on Wednesday that Indonesia would no longer host the tournament. It remains to be seen if Indonesia will face further repercussions, such as being banned from future tournaments. One immediate consequence is that Indonesia’s team, which earned a spot in the tournament as the privilege of the host nation, will be watching from home.

The Bali Legislative Council criticized the governor’s actions, and many Indonesian soccer fans were devastated that Indonesia would no longer host or participate in the games. Though the soccer fiasco might appear to be a setback in the normalization process, it is also a reminder of the costs Indonesians pay for its government’s discrimination against Israelis.

This was hardly FIFA’s first run-in with anti-Israel activism. A Palestinian campaign to eject Israel from FIFA led to the FIFA Monitoring Committee for Israel-Palestine’s formation. The committee determined in 2017 that FIFA should not be in the business of excluding either Israelis or Palestinians. Things got worse for anti-Israel activists in 2018 when the head of the Palestinian Football Association launched a campaign to coax Argentina into canceling its planned exhibition match against Israel. FIFA fined the Palestinian soccer chief and banned him for one year for inciting violence against Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

FIFA’s defense of the principles of non-discrimination and fair play stands in stark contrast to its previous acquiescence to the Arab boycott of Israel. Though Israel excelled in the Asian Football Confederation in the 1950s and 60s, antagonism by Arab and Muslim states forced the Jewish state to relocate to the European federation. Rather than stand up to the bullies, FIFA had the victim leave.

In recent years, sporting bodies have confronted anti-Israel discrimination more forcefully. For example, discrimination against Israelis led to the Women’s Tennis Association fining the United Arab Emirates in 2009, swimming’s governing body formally warning Qatari and Emirati officials in 2013, and the International Olympic Committee excluding Tunisia in 2018 from bidding to host the Youth Olympics.

Perhaps the most dramatic response to anti-Israel discrimination came from the International Judo Federation. In 2019, Iranian security forces intimidated Saeid Mollaei into throwing a match to avoid facing an Israeli. The IJF president personally intervened to assure Mollaei’s safety. The IJF banned Iran until it agreed to stop its discriminatory practices, though an appeal reduced the sentence to four years.

Increased vigilance against discrimination is the only way sporting bodies can ensure fair play. Now, Bali’s governor and others will have to explain to heartbroken players and fans why excluding Israelis was worth having the World Cup taken away.

David May (@DavidSamuelMay) is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. David was a Division 1 football player at the University of Maryland. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 


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