Many Israelis were angry Wednesday after Argentina suddenly cancelled plans to send players to a sporting event.
The Israeli national football team and Argentina’s team were to have played Saturday night in Jerusalem. The football match was to take place just days before the start of World Cup championship action in Russia.
The cancellation followed protests in support of Palestinian rights. Some Israeli officials accused Argentina’s Lionel Messi and other players of giving in to terrorism.
In the United States, European football is called soccer.
Argentina is one of the most popular national teams among Israelis. Many people were hoping to see Messi, one of the game’s stars, in person.
But after intense Palestinian protests, Argentina announced its team would not attend the event.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentine President Mauricio Macri and urged him to intervene. But his efforts were unsuccessful.
Late Wednesday, Israel’s Sports Ministry said that a “negotiation” about the match was underway, but gave no other details.
Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman said, “It’s unfortunate the soccer knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters.” He added that their “only goal is to harm our basic right to self-defense and bring about the destruction of Israel.”
Jibril Rajoub leads the Palestinian football association. He had called on Arabs to burn Lionel Messi pictures and Messi T-shirts if he played the match. Rajoub has long attempted to get FIFA, football’s world governing body, and the International Olympic Committee to take action against Israel.
Rajoub believes Israel should be punished for restricting movement of Palestinian players, and for forming teams in Jewish West Bank settlements.
He had also objected to having the match played in Jerusalem. Palestinians claim the eastern part of the city as their capital.
Following the move, Rajoub spoke with reporters in Ramallah. He had a picture of him with Messi and a sign reading: “From Palestine, thank you Messi.”
Rajoub had accused Israel of playing politics with the game by moving it from the port of Haifa to Jerusalem. He said, “They tried to use sport as a tool for political ends, and for this I think, they failed.”
But Israel’s sports minister, Miri Regev said, the game was moved for safety reasons. Regev claimed that “terrorist” groups had made threats against Argentina’s players and their families. She said the groups sent them images of dead children, but gave no further evidence.
The Argentinean move raised fears that it could lead to future boycotts of Jerusalem. The fears come as Israel is preparing to host the Eurovision song competition next year.
Israeli organizers noted an offer to have the game played in Barcelona instead. But it is not likely that will happen.
Argentina begins its first World Cup game in Russia against Iceland on June 16. The team then plays Croatia on June 21 and Nigeria on June 26.