It’s not just a game: the cancellation of the Israel-Argentina soccer match is monumental. For the Palestinians, It marks one of the biggest victories for BDS movement since its inception. It is also a massive accomplishment for Jibril Rajoub, the current Palestinian Football Association president, who harbors ambitions to replace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. For Israel, it is devastating to the tens of thousands of fans that bought tickets to see the world’s best player, Leo Messi, and his national team. On the domestic political level, it is an incredible blow for Miri Regev in particular, the minister of culture and sport, who insisted the match be moved from Haifa to Jerusalem but handed Rajoub a personal political achievement. Lastly, it is a slap in the face to Netanyahu, who has continuously insisted that the world has embraced Israel.
It is likely that all of this would have been avoided had Miri Regev refrained from paying 2.5 million shekels to have the match relocated from Haifa to Jerusalem, a move made all the more provocative in light of the recent U.S. Embassy move and Gaza riots. What better way to show the world accepts Israel’s capital than hosting the world’s best soccer player and his national team in a friendly match against Israel (and maybe posting a selfie with him immediately after). As soon as Regev had the move from Haifa to Jerusalem confirmed, she issued an ecstatic Facebook post the read: “I promised and delivered. Happy Argentina will play in Jerusalem. There is no place more fitting than our capital Jerusalem for a game such as this. It will be lit!”
With news of the game moving to Jerusalem, the Palestinians, headed by FA President Jibril Rajoub, began an aggressive campaign for the game to be called off because of its location. A protest was arranged outside the Argentinian consulate in Ramallah while BDS activists sent threats to Argentinian players and left bloody jerseys outside the team’s training ground in Barcelona, Spain.
This will undoubtedly be a big blow to the populist minister Miri Regev, who depends on the support of Likud voters, many of whom are avid soccer fans. According to a Ynet poll 60 percent of Israelis believe Miri Regev is responsible for the game’s cancellation, not BDS (26 percent), and not Leo Messi and the Argentinian national team (14 percent). Regev has made her job all about photo ops, funneling millions of shekels into flashy events. Just last week she put together a dance party in Times Square, lighting up the screens with Israeli videos and bringing famous Israeli musicians to New York. Regarding soccer, Israel’s national sport, Regev’s conduct has been similar; she preferred to invest in moving the match as a political stunt while ignoring the dismal state of Israel’s soccer program. Israel has dropped to a record low in the FIFA rankings, below the Palestinian national team, and lacks a head coach and technical director.
The match’s cancellation throws up a major speed bump in Israel’s foreign relations, both its political standing and in terms of cultural acceptance, far outpacing the relatively tepid criticism leveraged by Natalie Portman when she refused to attend the Genesis Prize Ceremony in Israel back in April. The Eurovision win, the success of actress Gal Gadot, and the soaring popularity of other cultural exports like the television program “Fauda” (now on Netflix) imbued Israel with a false sense of normalcy that masked the government’s public embrace of internationally polarizing policies and a U.S. administration that suffers from a serious credibility deficit overseas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been cashing in on diplomatic victories lately, including the relocation of the U.S. and several Latin American countries’ embassies to Jerusalem. But this time, the government overreached and ignored the writing on the wall. For every victory, there is the attendant backlash from the overwhelming majority of countries that, at the very least, see Jerusalem’s status as more ambiguous. In her deliberate and political decision (contrast with a recent Israel-Spain match held without incident in Jerusalem – where it was scheduled from the start) to move the Argentina match to Jerusalem, Regev was flirting with disaster. No one asked for the match to be relocated, least of all the Arab Israelis in the national team’s starting lineup.
What should be even more concerning for Regev and Israel’s government is that the move sets a precedent for other international events not to be hosted in Israel and Jerusalem, in particular, and raises serious doubts about whether the Eurovision competition will be held in the Israeli capital next year (as it was previously scheduled). The song contest’s organizers have already told fans not to book their tickets just yet.
For supporters of a two-state solution, the good news is that this episode indicates that the government will not indefinitely have carte blanche for its expansionist agenda. Despite championing the effort to cancel the match, Rajoub affirmed that absent Regev’s move from Haifa he would not have attempted to intercede (he would probably not have had an opportunity to begin with). If the Israeli government doubles down on the entire incident, attacking the Argentinian team or other relevant parties, they will be exposed as defending not Israel’s standing broadly but their narrow, national-religious politics and they will reap the consequences.