It’s still too early for it to have registered in polls, but last week’s cancellation of a soccer match between Argentina and Israel in Jerusalem has the potential to serve as an opening shot for the political narrative that finally ousts the Likud from power. The headline in Arutz Sheva, a media outlet that supports the settlement movement, “Left celebrates cancellation of soccer match,” was not quite correct, but the opposition should seize the chance to blame the government, and not Jibril Rajoub or the BDS movement, for this fiasco.

Would pro-Palestinian activists have called for the game’s cancellation even if the match had not been moved to Jerusalem, at the behest of Culture Minister Miri Regev, at great cost and attention? Of course they would have tried to derail the game. It’s even possible the game could have taken place in Jerusalem without incident if the United States had not drawn attention to the city’s politically charged status by unilaterally relocating its embassy there. As is the nature of most hypothetical scenarios, we will never know what could have been, nor should we discount the possibility that threats of violence played a role in the cancellation.

However, it is not unreasonable to assume that a game in Haifa, a far more harmonious locale than Jerusalem, would not have represented such a ripe target for Rajoub, a longtime Fatah grandee who is rumored to harbor presidential ambitions. The match was moved for political reasons and it’s hard to come away surprised that it engendered great political controversy.

The mistake Regev made was to believe that Israel’s legitimacy, virtually unquestioned in Haifa, could be stretched like a rubber band to cover Jerusalem (and, potentially, the settlements). It’s the same mistake pro-Israel lawmakers in the United States make when they add boycotts of “territories controlled by Israel” to condemn the global BDS movement.

Yes, Teddy Stadium is in West Jerusalem, but this seemingly redeemable element is actually irrelevant because Israel does not presently recognize any distinction between West and East, at least not diplomatically. Jewish Israelis may vehemently object to this reality, but they should expect their government to approach international relations with equanimity and knowledge rather than boorishness. Most previous governments understood this and did not push too hard for friends and allies to make significant overtures toward Jerusalem. They certainly would not have willingly courted controversy where little had existed.

In contrast, Regev and the government decided to embrace the marginal attempts to make the Argentina match political. Instead of being an ordinary and mundane game, it was turned into a symbol of defiance on a losing issue for Israel, and Israel was ultimately humiliated.

But what Israel-pessimists would view as a political slam-dunk for the right actually backfired: Regev not only took heat from the center-left, which no longer seems willing to cede issues of diplomacy and security to the right, but from Likud activists as well. Most notably, Benjamin Netanyahu, who retains a keen sense of precisely when to throw a problematic Likudnik under the bus, expended little effort to defend her and even backhandedly credited her for the game’s move to Jerusalem.

Instead of following Netanyahu’s lead in quickly moving on from what happened, Regev is insisting that the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest must be in Jerusalem or else. Rather than allow Israeli entertainment and culture to grow unimpeded by the politics of conflict, Regev is drawing a large target on their backs and forcing outsiders into controversies in which they want no role.

Will Eurovision 2019 be about promoting the Israel the world rarely sees, or will it be about affirming President Trump’s position on Jerusalem in the face of nearly unanimous international opposition? This is Israel’s choice.

More broadly, the Argentina episode exposed the limits of Israel’s newfound regional and international sympathy. This is where the opposition, but especially the Labor Party, has an opportunity to make the case for a pragmatic approach. A remarkable story published in The New Yorker this week confirmed some of my worst fears about the Netanyahu government: that it seeks to exploit the Trump administration’s inexperience and desire to upend the Obama legacy without regard for the consequences, which include diminishing sympathy for Israel among Democrats.

Some of this, I imagine, is because of Netanyahu’s own deeply held sympathy for the Republican Party. But it also arises from a certain arrogant self-confidence, one which mistakes a goal for the status quo. Improved relations with the leaders of Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, have the potential to help Israel manage the threat of Iran, but Netanyahu’s vision of turning the Arab world against the Palestinians through a pro-Israel Trump peace plan still only exists in theory (and I’m willing to bet it stays that way).

Argentina’s withdrawal from the Jerusalem match revealed yet another hole in the idea that Israel can have it all – permanent control of the occupied territories and unhampered engagement with the world.

But if the problem was once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s inability to stay out of the news cycle for long, the issue last week was Miri Regev’s striking determination to inject the conflict into something apolitical. The opposition is rightly excoriating her decision to move the game to Jerusalem, but it also shouldn’t shy away from highlighting a broader truth: Israel must operate within a reality-based framework, which at the moment does not include widespread support for Israeli policy in Jerusalem and beyond the Green Line. If it fails to do so, it will not only miss opportunities to expand its relations, but it will suffer more self-inflicted wounds.

Matzav-R copy
We respect your privacy.