For weeks, Israeli soccer fans have been eagerly awaiting Argentina's national team, set to play in Israel just before the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in Russia. But by the end of May, the Ministry of Culture and Sports relocated the match from Haifa to Jerusalem, claiming that such an important game must be held in Israel’s capital. The Argentine team responded by canceling its friendly match against Israel over the move, putting Argentine player Lionel Messi and his teammates into the political arena instead.
The highly publicized cancellation illustrated yet again Jerusalem's contested status. Whereas international criticism of Israel has largely centered on its occupation of the West Bank and the despair of Gaza’s residents under Israel’s blockade, the US administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has placed the focus of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on Jerusalem.
Argentina’s pullout indicates that Israel’s victorious crowing over the recent transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is premature. Argentina and its neighbors were unimpressed when Guatemala and Paraguay decided to follow Washington’s example. Most of the international community still regards Israel’s 1967 annexation of a large part of Jerusalem as a violation of UN resolutions and international law. That is why most countries keep their embassies outside the city, although they maintain normal diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. Even the head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, declared that if the game had been played in the northern Israeli city of Haifa as originally planned, “we would have opposed anyone who tried to hinder it.”
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev never misses an opportunity to use Israel’s Culture and Sports Ministry to pick up a headline and stage a photo-op at Jerusalem’s expense. After wearing a full-length evening gown emblazoned with a photo of Jerusalem’s skyline to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, she is now seeking to foist Jerusalem on every foreign festival held in Israel. Even as she was kicking the Israeli ball into the Jerusalem goalpost, the European Broadcast Union was asking Israel to propose a less divisive city than Jerusalem to host the 2019 Eurovision song contest. Now, in addition to soccer fans, hundreds of millions of pop music aficionados around the world will know that Jerusalem is not exactly part of Israel. Many of them presumably had never heard of the anti-Israel boycott movement and probably googled BDS and learned a thing or two about the occupation.
Rather than apologizing for the politicization of the sport, the general director of the Culture and Sports Ministry, Yossi Sharabi, likened the cancellation of the match to a “terror attack” against Israel. President Reuven Rivlin also turned the affair on its head, blaming the Argentinians for “politicizing” the sport. On the day following the dramatic Argentine move, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee conducted a scheduled debate on an amendment to the 2011 boycott law. “How symbolic that we are debating an amendment to the boycott law on this very day,” said the bill’s author, Knesset member Yoav Kisch of Regev’s Likud, as if Israel had been slapped with a military embargo rather than had an exhibition soccer match canceled.
The anti-boycott law allows lawsuits against individuals or organizations that call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to Israel “or to a specific region under Israeli control.” The wording encompasses East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and West Bank — all the areas Israel captured in the 1967 war. It enables Israel to portray any protest or sanction over the occupation and the Israeli settlements in occupied areas as anti-Israel activities to the point of being anti-Semitic. The law enables an Israeli vintner from the Hebron Hills area of the West Bank to sue an Israeli journalist who wrote an article critical of the occupation, arguing that the publication detracts from the vineyard’s profits.
The amendment, approved unanimously by the committee, is designed to enable that vintner to not only sue the journalist, but to win damages to the tune of tens of thousands of shekels without having to prove any link between the article and any damage. Committee members from the government coalition ignored opinions by the attorney general and the legal adviser of the committee itself opposing the proposed amendment. The bill’s right-wing supporters were underwhelmed by a Supreme Court ruling that defines awarding damages without proving damage as a blow to freedom of expression. They are counting on the proposed “override clause” allowing the Knesset to re-enact laws struck down by the top court to protect their amendment. If the amendment is struck down, they will have at least picked up a few additional supporters for future party primaries.
“A boycott of Israel must exact a painful cost, especially if it comes from within,” Kisch lashed out at the committee members from the left. But who are these people from “within” that call for a boycott? As Zionist Camp Knesset member Merav Michaeli said during the debate, “You do not differentiate between Judea and Samaria [the biblical names of the West Bank] and Israel, and that is exactly what the BDS does.” Knesset member Moshe “Mossi” Raz of the leftist Meretz insisted that he opposes any boycott of Israel but supports sanctioning Israeli settlements, which he regards as immoral and illegal.
While lawmakers from the ruling coalition are seeking to punish anyone boycotting settlers in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights, the Israeli government cynically differentiates those areas when it suits it. Last December, it overwhelmingly approved an economic cooperation agreement with the European Union, the ENI CBC Med, which specifically stipulated that it does not apply to areas beyond Israel’s 1967 borders. Regev was the only dissenter, arguing that with one hand the government is willing to sign an agreement that does not apply to East Jerusalem, while at the same time “demanding that the world give de facto recognition to our right to a united Jerusalem and even to move embassies to Israel's capital."
Regev’s friends, including her "king" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all those who are now cheering her downfall over the Argentine fiasco, agreed at the time to quietly take money from the Europeans. The next day they resumed their incitement against European-backed Israeli peace activists and malicious legislation against organizations trying to save Israel from pariah status over its settlements and Jerusalem fever.