ZURICH (Reuters) - Palestine unexpectedly dropped its motion to suspend Israel from international football on Friday amid highly-charged scenes at the FIFA Congress.
Instead, soccer’s governing body agreed to send observers to monitor the freedom of players and officials to travel to and from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories -- one of the main complaints raised by Palestinian authorities.
In a statement from Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed what he called the Palestinians’ failure to freeze Israel out of world soccer, saying it represented a success for his government’s diplomatic efforts.
Many ordinary Palestinians expressed anger and disappointment over the decision to avoid a showdown.
Israel Football Association (IFA) President Ofer Eini at one point called on his Palestine counterpart Jibril Rajoub to come on stage at the FIFA Congress and shake hands, something Rajoub initially declined in a tense standoff.
“I would very much want us to shake hands, and say we are launching a new road,” said Eini.
The pair eventually shook hands once FIFA President Sepp Blatter put forward the proposal aimed at preventing a divisive vote at a very difficult time for the soccer federation, which is reeling from a corruption scandal.
The Palestine FA (PFA) has complained of anti-Arab racism in the Israeli game and accused Israel of hampering its activities and restricting the movement of players between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel cites security concerns for the restrictions and the country’s football association has argued that it has no control over such matters.
FIFA has been trying to settle the matter for two years and Blatter this month traveled to the region and met Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestine had asked for a motion proposing that Israel be suspended, which would have meant that Israeli teams could not take part in international competitions, but Rajoub said he had been persuaded to back down.
“I decided to drop the suspension, but it does not mean that I give up the resistance,” Rajoub told the Congress.
“Tens of presidents of associations from Africa, South America, North America and Europe said to me that they don’t want to have the precedent of suspending an association.”
Netanyahu indicated Israel had worked hard to prevent what might have proved a deeply embarrassing sporting sanction.
“Our international effort has proven itself and led to the failure of the attempt to oust us from FIFA,” he said.
He added that Palestinian moves to bar Israel from international organizations would not resolve the decades-old dispute between the two neighbors.
“At a time when the international community is calling for confidence-building measures, the Palestinians are once again replying with an attempt to carry out unilateral steps that harm the ability to advance a regional settlement,” he said.
U.S.-led negotiations between the two sides collapsed last year and show no signs of being revived, with Netanyahu earlier this year ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state any time soon.
Leading up to the FIFA meeting, Rajoub had said he was not interested in any “private deals” to resolve the dispute, as has happened in the past, telling reporters this month that he was determined to press for a vote against Israel.
Ordinary Palestinians said on Friday they were disappointed.
“What happened today was a betrayal by the Palestinian leadership of the demands of the Palestinian people and tens of thousands around the world who were asking for Israel’s suspension, until it ends discrimination,” said Fadi Kuraan, a resident of the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Many Palestinian Facebook posts were also bitter, accusing Rajoub’s climbdown as “humiliating” and “cowardly”.
In Zurich, IFA President Eini asked to address Congress from the podium: “Let’s leave it to the politicians to deal with politics and join forces and do the best we can on both sides.
“I want us to work together, I want us to co-operate, I want us to hug and embrace each other,” he said.
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Additional reporting by Ismael Khader in Ramallah, Nidal al-Moghrabi and Mohammed Shanaa in Gaza, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Ken Ferris and Crispian Balmer
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