Human Rights Watch and FIFA test Middle East fallout of Trump’s election

By James M. Dorsey

Human Rights Watch (HRW), in an initial probing of the impact of the rise of US President-elect Donald J. Trump, has asked the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights to include world soccer body FIFA in a registry of enterprises that do business with Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The request is based on the fact that the Israel Football Association (IFA) organizes matches in Israeli settlements and allows six settlement teams to play in Israeli Leagues. The Palestine Football Association (PFA) backed by HRW has denounced the Israeli policy as a violation of FIFA policy that stipulates that teams can only play on the territory of another FIFA member with that member’s permission.

Like much of the international community, the PFA and HRW view Israeli settlements as illegal. In response, the IFA has argued that the settlements are disputed territory whose status has yet to be resolved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Tokyo Sexwale, the head of a FIFA committee established to deal with Israeli-Palestinian soccer issues, is scheduled to visit Israel this week. Mr. Sexwale’s visit and the HRW request take on added significance in the wake of the rise of Mr. Trump.

Trump insiders have suggested that the president-elect would reverse long-standing US policy that has viewed the West Bank conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war as occupied territory and Israeli settlements as illegal and has argued that they constitute an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Israeli anticipation of a US policy that is far more empathetic to hard-line Israeli policy has already prompted an Israeli government committee to approve a draft bill that would legalize Jewish settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land. The bill is slated to go to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, for the first of three separate readings and possible approval by the Supreme Court.

The bill suggests that Mr. Sexwale will find little traction in this week’s talks with Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. FIFA’s governing council is scheduled to decide the fate of the settlement clubs in early January.  Mr. Sexwale has said that any such decision may need to be ratified by the FIFA Congress expected to be held in Bahrain in May.

The Israeli draft bill also suggests that Israel will be far less receptive to demands that it adhere to international law governing the status of occupied territory. Israeli perceptions are reinforced by reports that Mr. Trump intends to appoint Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee as his ambassador to Israel.

Mr. Huckabee, a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements and advocate of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a position espoused by Mr. Trump during his election campaign, denied that the president-elect had discussed his appointment during a meeting last week.

The HRW request builds not only on international law regarding the status of the West Bank as occupied territory but also on a decision by a Swiss government-sponsored unit of the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to classify FIFA as a multi-national bound by the group's guidelines rather than a non-governmental organization.

The request is also rooted in a report commissioned by FIFA in which John Ruggie, a Harvard professor and former UN Secretary-General special representative for business and human rights, that urges the soccer body to subscribe to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

With a US administration likely to be far more empathetic to Israeli policy than past US governments toward the West Bank, the HRW request fits Palestinian strategy that has in recent years increasingly focused on confronting Israel in international organizations and the possibility of challenging Israeli occupation in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

That strategy has so far produced mixed results. Mr. Sexwale’s committee was created last year after the PFA failed to garner sufficient votes to force FIFA to suspend Israel’s membership.

Mr. Trump’s election has moreover raised the prospect of a host of illiberal leaders potentially refusing to recognize international law. China refused to recognize an ICC ruling on the South China Sea even before Mr. Trump’s rise, Russia has since withdrawn from the ICC, and the Philippines has suggested that it may follow suit.

Mr. Trump’s rise is likely to give reinforced impetus to the PFA’s plans to go to the world’s top court for sports in a bid to force its Israeli counterpart to view Israeli settlements on the West Bank as occupied territory rather than an extension of the Jewish state. The move would constitute a first testing of Palestine’s ability to fight its battle with Israel in international courts.

The dynamics of the HRW request and the Palestinians’ strategy take on greater significance in the Trump era in which the United States itself may demonstrate greater disregard for international organizations and law.

A more pro-Israeli US policy could moreover complicate a willingness by Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, to openly engage with Israel based on a common interest oppose expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East and North Africa despite the Jewish state’s de facto rejection of Palestinian rights.

A IFA delegation will be attending the FIFA Congress in Bahrain, where the fate of Israeli settlement teams could ultimately be sealed. The presence of an Israeli delegation in a Gulf capital despite a Gulf ban on Israeli passport holders would follow the opening of an Israeli diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates accredited to the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency rather than the UAE government.

The rise of Mr. Trump potentially throws a monkey wrench into Middle Eastern politics, the fallout of which is uncertain. The rise of a more pro-Israeli US administration that projects Islamophobia and questions long-standing US policies and partnerships could complicate the Gulf’s more open alignment with Israel. Palestinian efforts backed by HRW to enforce international law on the soccer pitch may well offer an early indication of how the new winds blowing from Washington will play out in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.


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