Tel Aviv — When a Palestinian motion to expel Israel from international soccer was scrapped last week at the 11th hour by the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials hailed the results as a victory for Israeli public diplomacy.
“Our international effort proved itself and brought about the failure of the effort of the Palestinian Authority,” Netanyahu said of the push headed by former Palestinian Gen. Jibril Rajoub.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely congratulated ministry diplomats and Israeli soccer officials who lobbied foreign governments to oppose the initiative.
Even though FIFA, engulfed in a widespread corruption scandal, ultimately approved a resolution to establish a committee to monitor allegations of Israeli limitations on Palestinian players, teams that are based in West Bank settlements, and racism in Israeli soccer, the main threat to Israel — expulsion from international soccer competitions — was avoided.
But diplomatic experts in Israel believe that the Palestinian retreat at the world soccer organization — known as FIFA — is only temporary and that the Palestinians will eventually resume their push to isolate Israel from the world of sports.
Indeed, instead of relief, the FIFA showdown seemed to ratchet up concern among Israelis that the Jewish state is about to face a tsunami of efforts by pro-Palestinian activists to isolate and delegitimize Israel in the international area. On the eve of the FIFA vote, a delegation from Israel’s top research universities huddled with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin about growing efforts on campuses to boycott Israel academically.
“This is obviously part of a bigger campaign; the events at FIFA were just the tip of the iceberg,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union. Israeli diplomats believe that the next target of the Palestinians will be anti-Israel moves at the International Olympic Committee meeting later this year.
Concern about boycott efforts have heightened as Israel’s new right-wing government takes office with little expectations of renewing peace talks with the Palestinians while Jewish settlements continue to expand.
Experts said that the FIFA vote gave Palestinian efforts at internationalizing their statehood and complaints about the situation in the West Bank an unprecedented spotlight because of the attention that soccer gets around the world. The Palestinian Authority, Eran said, has discovered the “soft underbelly” of Israel by trying to isolate Israel in international organizations.
“It was a victory that Israel wasn’t kicked out of FIFA, but the Palestinian attempts will continue. It’s a good result, but it’s not the final round.”
Yuval Rotem, who heads public diplomacy at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told the Maariv newspaper that the Palestinians are just “whetting their appetites” and that diplomats were surprised at how far Rajoub was able to advance the Palestinian cause. “The Palestinians have taken us to a new level of delegitimacy,” he said.
With a continued diplomatic vacuum in peace negotiations, efforts to isolate Israel and eject it from international organizations are likely to continue, said Eran.
The boycott movement is looming large in Israel’s imagination: Rivlin called it a “strategic threat” in a meeting held with Israeli academic leaders. Since the formation of Netanyahu’s new narrow coalition government, the prime minister deputized a government minister to formulate a response to the boycott push.
There have also been reports that leading American Jewish philanthropists have been invited by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to Los Angeles to discuss strategies for dealing with the boycott campaign.
“There’s no question that the boycott movement is growing,” said David Newman, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University who is planning to deliver a lecture at an upcoming conference on the boycott movement.
Despite the warnings of the spreading acceptance of an academic boycott of Israel, such moves have had only a marginal impact on Israeli research. The same point has been made about the impact of efforts at an economic boycott of Israel. Rather, the main damage is growing political acceptance of such moves.
Policy makers face a catch-22 in deciding on how to respond, Newman said. While overreaction by Israel risks conferring legitimacy, prestige and media on the boycott movement, Israel and its allies can’t afford to ignore the growing boycott push.
“We’re not really sure how to deal with it,” Newman said.
Not surprisingly, the debate over the boycott movement inside Israel has become political. Netanyahu said on Monday the delegitimization campaign is “nothing new” and resembles anti-Semitic libels from Jewish history. A day later, the prime minister was attacked by opposition Leader Isaac Herzog for “standing on the sidelines” and “cowardliness.”
“Concert cancellations, the economic boycott, the academic boycott, and the saga that took place at FIFA are only a few examples of war that Israel is fighting in the international area,” Herzog wrote on his Facebook page.
There’s also a debate over how to grapple with the boycott movement. While Netanyahu describes the boycott movement as a modern form of anti-Semitism, Yoaz Hendel, a former aide of his turned newspaper columnist, framed the boycotters as practicing a form of nonviolent, “asymmetric” warfare because “there are no moral limitations; there is truth and no lies.” More liberal Israelis warn against dismissing all boycott efforts as anti-Semitic.
By raising the alarm about attempts to isolate Israel, the prime minister is embracing the concerns formerly raised only by peaceniks that Israel faces a diplomatic tidal wave, said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York.
“Until recently it was the left that warned that Israel was going to face a diplomatic tsunami, and it was the right responding they were being hysterical,” he said.
But if the left blames the delegitimization campaign in part on Israel’s settlements and the occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu is portraying a confluence of challenges — the FIFA campaign and the boycott movement, a nuclear Iran, and the Palestinian efforts to internationalize their statehood drive — as part of an existential threat pitting Israel versus the world.
“In his mind, the three are combined,” Pinkas said, “and it begs for a national unity government. It’s not about the Palestinians — it’s people who are questioning and doubting Israel’s right to exist.”