Palestine, the Political Football: Good Enough For Soccer, Not Good Enough For Statehood


Immediately prior to New Years 2015 there were two significant developments in Australia-Palestine relations. On December 30, the Australian government rejected a draft UN Security Council resolution calling for the end of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the creation of an independent Palestinian state within three years.

Less than a day later, over a hundred enthusiastic Australians welcomed the Palestinian national soccer team to Australia for the AFC Asian Cup. 

There is an important contradiction at play here. Australia is hosting a sporting team from a nation that the Australian government repeatedly refuses to recognize as a sovereign state. It’s a perplexing situation not only because it’s a first in international diplomacy, but also because sport and politics often go hand in hand.

Why host a sporting team from a place you don’t recognize? Why give life and form to a nation that you explicitly deny?

In the aftermath of the UN vote, Australia’s ambassador Gary Quinlan challenged the content of the resolution, calling it too one-sided. He also argued that the unilateralism of the UN-based statehood campaign precluded a negotiated settlement between the two parties.

To pick at Quinlan’s justification, the resolution called for the end of an occupation, aspects of which are conclusively ‘illegal’ under international law and for a state based on pre-occupation 1967 borders with negotiated land swaps. Moreover, the Palestinians have only brought their statehood case before the UN because negotiations with Israel have repeatedly proven ineffective.

The last round of US-brokered peace talks between the two parties ended in April 2014 after Israel refused to halt settlement construction in the West Bank. The Americans called out Israel’s rejectionist approach and Mahmoud Abbas pointed, in frustration, to a new round of internationalized diplomacy on the issue.

Despite Quinlan’s focus on the individual resolution, Australia’s ‘no’ vote is emblematic of a broader affinity with Israel. Australian voting patterns on the issue in the UN over the last 10 years indicate strong support for Israeli interests.

For instance, since 2003, both Labor and LNP governments have either abstained or voted against Palestinians’ sovereignty over their natural resources. LNP voting patterns have been markedly more pro-Israel. The Howard government, for example, abstained or voted against  all UN resolutions highlighting the illegality of Israeli settlement building, the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT), and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

These stances were reversed during the Rudd-Gillard years, but have largely been renewed since the Abbott government came to power.

Irrespective of nebulous government statements in support of a two state solution, their public positions have been overwhelmingly pro-Israel, especially in the last two years.

In the aftermath of a 2012 General Assembly vote on Palestinian non-member observer status at the UN, shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop criticized the government’s decision to abstain and said that a LNP government would have voted against it. And after being elected in 2013, Bishop questioned the well-documented “illegality” of Israeli settlement building practices in occupied West Bank under international law, asking “to see which international law has declared them illegal.”

Soon after, Attorney General Brandis created further furor by questioning the widely used descriptor “occupied” in reference to East Jerusalem, the desired future Palestinian capital.

Collectively these statements dismissed the key grounds on which Palestinians have been calling for an end to occupation and an independent state.

In an August 2014 speech, Christopher Pyne announced “Australia has always been prepared to be in the fight and always on the right side. And that’s how we view the State of Israel – that we are on the right side.”

These rhetorical overtures, combined with voting patterns, illustrate that recent Australian governments have leaned towards pro-Israel positions and the current Australian government is, as political scientist Amin Saikal puts it, “uncritically supportive of Israel.”

In the face of such an unequivocal political stance against Palestinian statehood, why hasn’t there been a political reaction to the national team’s participation in the Asian Cup? No statements by politicians. No talk of a sporting boycott.  Nothing but silence. Why implicitly acknowledge Palestinian statehood by allowing the national team to participate on Australian soil?

There are a number of factors that inhibit any political action against the Palestinian team. These factors highlight the utter isolation of Australia's position on Palestinian statehood, and shed light on the silence over Palestine’s AFC Asian Cup participation.

First, Australia’s statehood stance is at odds with that of FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body. FIFA recognizes Palestine as a full member. This means that the Palestinian soccer team can participate in any FIFA event, including the World Cup and Asian Cup. FIFA’s decision is controversial because it was made in 1998, pre-dating Palestine’s recognition as a state at the UN, and negating FIFA’s own key prerequisite for full membership. The move was also likely facilitated by the Arab states’ clout within the governing body.

Yet there have been no objections about Palestine’s membership from other members and the Palestinian national team has generally been able to participate in football tournaments across the globe, when Israel grants them exit visas. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, for his part, has threatened the Israeli FA with suspension from FIFA in the past if it continues to restrict Palestinian players’ travel.

Given this consensus within the soccer community, it would be almost impossible for another member country to challenge Palestine’s participation in a soccer event based on its own political standpoint without risking sanction from FIFA. Raising too many questions about Palestine’s participation would have likely put Australia’s AFC Asian Cup hosting and participation rights in jeopardy.

But Australian governments have been immune to such consequences in the past. We have a long history of using sporting boycotts to political ends, especially when there is strong public conviction against a political foe or a perceived moral pariah in the international community. The apartheid boycotts, and the Fraser government’s attempt to pull Australian teams out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are cases in point.

However, the moral or political case for the same against the Palestinians is simply non-existent. Indeed, civil society boycott campaigns are much more widely aimed at Israel. The once prominent “terrorist” label accorded to Palestinian political groups is now defunct within mainstream Western public discourse because most factions, Hamas excepted, have explicitly disavowed guerrilla warfare and terror tactics since the early 2000s.

On-the-ground media coverage of Israel’s invasion of Gaza in July 2014, and its proliferation on social media has, for the first time ever, shifted popular Western focus on to the immorality and illegality of Israeli military practices. This has also helped recalibrate the Palestinians as unequivocal “victims” in an asymmetric conflict.

While our government mirrors Israeli and American positions at the UN, others have become much more attuned to the shifting sands of international and domestic public opinion. A total of 138 countries voted in favor of non-member observer state status for Palestine at the 2012 UN GA vote. And in the last six months, a number of parliaments have recognized Palestinian statehood, responding to shifts in European public opinion.

The British, French and Portuguese parliaments voted to back recognition of a Palestinian state by margins of 274 to 12, 339 to 151, and 221 to 9 respectively. Sweden became the first Western European state to officially recognize Palestine. Given this reality, political action against the Palestinian team would probably create a global diplomatic storm.

These shifts extend to recent Australian public discourse. Ironically, they have gained even more prominence since the Palestinian team’s arrival. Feature articles in many of Australia’s major newspapers and online media outlets – the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Guardian, and the Newcastle Herald – highlight a common narrative: the achievement of qualifying despite the daily challenges of living under occupation.

The tournament organizers themselves are promoting Palestine as “the fairy tale story… committed to football despite ongoing conflict in the region”. And a public school in Newcastle even “adopted Palestine” as part of the AFC Asian Cup’s Adopt A Team competition, interested in “how they were able to qualify through adversity.”

These sentiments are backed up by late 2014 polling data, which shows that more Australians are sympathetic towards Palestinians than towards Israel, and that 57 per cent of Australians thought that the government should vote in favor of Palestine becoming an independent state.

The Australian government’s position is out of sync with the public, meaning that any political action against the Palestinian team would be a serious public relations disaster.

It is apparent that the government’s most politically prudent option in the face of Palestine’s soccer sojourn on Australian soil is to remain silent and let it pass with minimum fuss. It’s clear that the limits of the government’s solidarity with Israel stem from the weight of institutional, diplomatic, and public support for Palestinian statehood and Palestine’s participation at the AFC Asian Cup. In this context its important to ask what benefits Australia derives from persisting with such a damaging rejectionist stance?

In the interim, as Palestinians increasingly assert themselves on the international stage, governments like ours will be repeatedly forced into compromises, highlighting strange and perplexing contradictions, like the one we have now.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.