Israel-Palestine World Soccer Cup Bid Update

James Montague from The Guardian newspaper just posted an article about Eytan Heller’s vision for Israel and Palestine to co-host the World Soccer Cup in 2018, an idea which so far has already spawned OneVoice’s Imagine 2018 Campaign.

James Montague

The beautiful game’s bid to heal the oldest wounds

Tentative plans are being mooted for a joint Israel-Palestine 2018 World Cup bid but is it an incentive for peace or a recipe for disaster?

James Montague

July 24, 2008 2:01 PM

Close your eyes and picture the scene: it is the group stage of the 2018 World Cup and England (it’s an outside bet, but for journalistic purposes let’s just suppose they made it to the finals) follow the same path they always do in international tournaments, a narrow victory against some form of footballing minnow followed by a goalless, soulless draw, probably against Sweden. And then comes the crunch match, in a state of the art stadium near the azure waters of the Mediterranean. In, erm, Gaza City.

No, I haven’t been smoking crack. While England, Australia and the United States gear up for a long bout of sycophancy and arse-kissing to secure the rights to host the 2018 World Cup, a rather more problematic, if noble, potential host is coming up fast on the outside fence: a joint Israel-Palestine bid.

The bid is the brainchild of the Israeli filmmaker Eytan Heller and the international NGO OneVoice. "The original idea came in 2006 during the World Cup when I travelled to Ramallah," Heller said. "I was amazed to see the flags of all the European teams on the roofs of the city and seeing the same thing in Tel Aviv in my neighbourhood, it seemed like a continuity of fraternity, so I wanted to launch a campaign to launch the candidacy."

Both host countries would share the matches with Ramallah, Tulkarem and Gaza taking the Palestinian’s share and Haifa, Tel Aviv and Mitzpe Ramon the Israeli games. The final would, of course, be played in Jerusalem. Or Al Quds. Or maybe Jerusalem-Al Quds. Anyway, the aim, according to Heller, is to try and get a critical mass of football fans on either side of the wall, as well as internationally, to support the bid. "It’s a grassroots campaign and the idea is to try and grow organically and stay away from the political heaviness and manipulation of organisations that have links to government and have nationalistic agendas," he said. "Look at Japan and Korea. They were enemies too and overcame that. Why not here? There are a lot of cynics who laugh at this idea and start to ask very realistic questions. How can we build stadiums? Aren’t the territories too small? You can say the same thing about peace but if you don’t believe in it what is the point in being here?"

The idea has already attracted thousands of supporters who can sign up for a seat in the organisation’s virtual stadium on its website, which also has a short promotional video showing Palestinian footballers joyously kicking a ball over the wall. And there has also been some high profile support. Last February IRIS, a French international relations think tank, released a statement from Lilian Thuram backing the bid. "If a peace agreement is concluded…a 2018 World Cup jointly staged in Israel and Palestine would be a fantastic opportunity to consolidate the gains for both sides," wrote Thuram along with IRIS’s director Pascal Boniface. "Infrastructure investment would then follow. The joint organisation of the 2018 World Cup in a place where two peoples were once at war would serve as a powerful symbol of the way that sports can serve the cause of peace."

Boniface admitted that "it is impossible to think of the World Cup in the current situation. But look at South Africa. The World Cup is a reward for them ending apartheid. This bid would be the same, a reward for peace and the end of the war. Peace is not there. This is the biggest obstacle. Not an imposed peace, but a real and true peace."

While the oft abused, and plainly false, maxim of keeping football and politics separate is still spouted by Fifa, those backing the joint 2018 bid think that great things could be achieved if the world governing body took a more politically proactive stance on its bidding selection. Supporters think that the bid could be an incentive for peace in a part of the world obsessed by football, not to mention all the accoutrements that follow it, like the rebuilding of the West Bank and Gaza’s shattered infrastructure.

"Let’s assume that Fifa said ‘we want to inspire people to sign a framework agreement if you do a, b and c’, then I am sure there would be an enormous amount of media pressure," said Daniel Lubetzky, founder and president of OneVoice. "It would inspire politicians and inspire people not normally involved. Israelis and Palestinians are huge soccer fans so if there was such a hope it would get the average soccer fan to say ‘wow, yallah [let's go]‘. It’s one little example of how much better things could be."

So far, so right on. Should England’s footballing burghers, who are themselves planning a bid, start looking over their shoulder? So far the only country to come out in support of the bid is Djibouti and, while every World Cup bid has its unique hurdles, a joint Israel-Palestine bid literally has a huge wall in front of it. The Israeli West Bank barrier is a totemic reminder of a intractable conflict that has incrementally worsened over sixty years. And currently the countries aren’t exactly well prepared to host an international football tournament, what with Israeli road blocks, the threat of terrorism, and non-existent infrastructure.

Furthermore, there are no stadiums other than one in Gaza (itself shelled by the Israeli army two years ago while a local team trained on it) and the hopefully named Jericho International Stadium, which resembles something from the Scottish third division. Oh, and then there’s the issue of whether any Arab states would actually turn up to play a tournament in a country they don’t officially recognise. All of which puts the problems surrounding South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 tournament into a bit of perspective.

But the biggest barrier appears to be getting both the Israeli and Palestinian FAs to agree on anything at all. While the Israeli FA is at least conducive to the idea of football being used to heal deep social and political divisions – they are involved in the yearly Peres Center for Peace football matches where a joint Israel-Palestine team get hammered by the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona – they still have reservations about working with their Palestinian counterparts. "We welcome any proposal that helps peace in the Middle East," said Gil Levanoni, spokesperson for the Israeli FA. "[But] I think that the Israelis and Palestinians have more complicated problems [than hosting a tournament]. It would be the least and last of our problems. The situation is not so simple between Israel and Palestine. We still have a soldier captured in Gaza."

There’s no love lost on the Palestinian side either. According to the Peres Center for Peace, Palestinian players who participated in any of the peace matches are punished by being dropped from the national team. Certainly when I met Mohammed Sabah, then the Palestinian national coach, during a tournament in Amman, which took place at the same time as the last Peace Match last year, there seemed little chance of footballing reconciliation. "No, I am not sharing [a pitch with] the occupation," Sabah told me outright when I asked whether he supported the Palestinian presence at the peace matches. "The Israelis must know that when we have our rights we can play. But when we are killed and they make checkpoints … we can’t play like in other countries."

But there is some hope. Earlier this year Jibril Rajoub, who is something of Palestinian political institution, was elected president of the Palestinian FA. After spending 15 years in an Israeli jail for throwing a grenade, followed by deportation to Lebanon, Rajoub rose to become Yasser Arafat’s National Security Advisor. As a moderate he was also a leading candidate to replace him as head of the Palestinian Authority when he died.

The job went to Mahmoud Abbas but Rajoub is using his position to spark some footballing détente. One of his first acts as President was to meet Israeli Knesset members about the feasibility of building a joint Israeli Palestinian national stadium over the Green Line.

Still, Heller is realistic that a joint Israel Palestine bid for the World Cup is a long shot, but he believes that even the slimmest of chances is still a chance. "The chances are very small, yes," Heller admitted. "The campaign is more aimed at lighting a match and sparking a different vision. This is the end result of a long-term vision, but there are prerequisites and preconditions. Hosting the World Cup is a dream, but why not? We should be there when the decision is made [in 2011]."

Brian Barwick, you have been warned.

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