“Sport is the best way to overcome hate and hostility”.
Can you name the person who said those words after Barcelona’s soccer team visited Jerusalem and Hebron to play for Jewish and Arab crowds? Not sure? Maybe another quotation might help, spoken not long before Argentina scrapped a planned football game in Jerusalem:
“Messi. Don’t come. Don’t whitewash the face of racism”.
Confused? The same man, Palestinian Football Association president Jibril Rajoub, said both of these things.
June was an eventful month for Israel. It opened with mass euphoria followed by mass disappointment as one of the world’s greatest footballers cancelled a scheduled trip to play a game in Jerusalem, and closed with the visit of a member of British royalty, finally breaking a seventy-year-old reticence to come to Israel.
The contrast between the two events was jarring. Before Prince William’s visit, no threats were issued. No condemnations were made by Palestinian leaders. Less than a month earlier, however, Lionel Messi and his Argentina side had seen their national team jersey daubed in mock blood, and told that their country’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup would be derailed if their trip went ahead as planned.
There is an unhelpful tendency to view the Palestinians as perpetually, irrationally violent. There is no doubt that terrorism and incitement exist, and that, far from discouraging it, the Palestinian leadership sponsors terrorism. Nevertheless, there are times when the Palestinian leadership displays a degree of willingness to accept Israel. These times are opportunities for anyone who truly wants peace.
For those who advocate working together on smaller projects and building peace bottom-up, the last month’s developments are instructive. Less jingoism, less antagonism, less forcelessness. More co-operation, more listening, more recognition.
Five years ago, Lionel Messi’s Barcelona team came to Israel, stayed at Jerusalem’s Inbal hotel, and held a practice session in front of thousands of Israelis. Far from warning them to stay away, Rajoub expressed hoped that when Barcelona visited again in the future, it would be in “an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel”.
Alongside Israel. Not instead of Israel. Remarkable words from a former terrorist who clearly still harbours a great deal of resentment to Israel.
The key here is that Barcelona didn’t visit Israelis alone. The Basque team also played in front of Palestinians. They went to Hebron, and strutted their stuff for an audience of 20,000 football-crazy fans there.
Fast forward five years, and BDS seems to be gathering steam, with numerous major acts cancelling shows in Israel, and now pulling off its greatest success in making Lionel Messi, possibly the greatest footballer of all time, the icon for the boycott campaign. What changed?
The answer is the difference between push and pull, between carrot and stick, between territorial antagonism and careful collaboration to engage people on both sides. There was no problem initially when Israel sought to bring the Argentinean team to Israel to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary. But crass, heavy-handed populism by politicians who insisted that the game be moved to Jerusalem played right into BDS hands.
Compare that to Barcelona’s 2013 “Peace Tour”, carefully constructed by the Peres Center for Peace, which worked together with Israelis and Palestinians. Faced with the opportunity of a visit from one of the most recognizable, adored people on the planet, the Palestinians didn’t boycott the tour; they endorsed it.
Last week, Prince William visited “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”, to use the British Foreign Office’s terminology. At a time when the World Cup is in full swing, football featured prominently. The prince kicked a ball on a Tel Aviv beach and played with Christian, Jewish and Muslim children in Jaffa. He then visited religious sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. He told Israelis that “the ties between our countries have never been stronger”, and hailed Israelis’ “innovation, diversity, talent, and excellence”. Yet the prince was welcomed by the Palestinian Authority with open arms.
It would be easy to dismiss Rajoub’s contradictory statements above as a politician doing as politicians do. That would be a mistake. His willingness to openly talk of living alongside Israel betrayed something of immense importance for regional stability: Working together for tangible benefits can soften Palestinian stances on Israel. Conversely, aggressive posturing by politicians might feel cathartic for many, but is a liability and triggers a backlash.
None of this is to say that Rajoub is a saint. It is clear that many Palestinian leaders cannot abide by Israel. The glorification of terrorists attests to a deep-seated hatred of the Jewish state, and a willingness to justify the deliberate, pre-meditated murder of innocents is a sign of the depth of the animosity held against Israel. Nevertheless, if men like Jibril Rajoub are willing to talk about a Palestinian state alongside Israel, rather than in Israel’s place, Israelis should be listening.
Many Israelis are weary of the “peace process” and regard imposing peace from above as unfeasible. For those who advocate working together on small projects and building peace bottom-up, the last month’s developments are instructive. Less jingoism, less antagonism, less forcelessness. More co-operation, more listening, more recognition. As Prince William said in Ramallah, “You have not been forgotten”. Such talk may go a long way to avoiding further BDS victories in the future.