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Opinion

Why did a UAE sheikh buy half an Anti-Arab Israeli football club, and what links the deal to Trump and Netanyahu?

An Arab royal’s $100-million investment in notoriously racist Beitar Jerusalem FC has been billed as a historic joining of faiths. On closer inspection, however, there’s more to this than just peace, love and sport.

‘Arab sheikh buys stake in foreign football club’ is not news. Several of Europe’s biggest clubs are already owned by Gulf monarchies and funded by their petro-dollar fortunes. But the confirmation that Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan has bought 50 percent of Israeli Premier League team Beitar Jerusalem is in a different league. It reveals a murky political game of public manipulation.

The top line is that Beitar have a notoriously racist image. They have never had an Arab player, and their fan group La Familia chants ‘Death to Arabs’.

In 2013, when two Chechen Muslim players arrived, the club’s offices were burnt down, and two members of La Familia were charged with arson. There was outrage again, when current player Ali Mohamed arrived, with La Familia petitioning for him to change his name, due to its religious connotations – despite the Nigerian actually being Catholic.

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Beitar’s co-owner, Moshe Hogeg, has spoken of trying to rid the club of its racist streak, but there are varying reports as to how successful that has been.

“You shout one racist comment and I will sue you for a million dollars” was the warning he gave to the club’s fans. And now Hogeg is equally vocal in welcoming his Arab partner onboard.

The Israeli entrepreneur is keen on social media. He’s the type of person who buys his wife a car, decorates it with bows and balloons, and posts a photo of it on Instagram so the world can marvel at what a great husband he is. 

In recent months, he travelled to Dubai, took a selfie, shared it, and gushed, “One of the most impressive and beautiful places I have been.”

He obviously made the trip after August’s historic peace deal between the UAE and Israel had been signed, because, before then, nationals of either country were not permitted to travel to the other.

Sheikh Hamad also takes his publicity duties seriously. He confirmed his investment on Beitar Jerusalem FC’s website: “I am thrilled to be a partner in such a glorious club that I have heard so much of, and in such a great city, the capital of Israel and one of the holiest cities in the world.”

And that was it – the first telltale sign of what’s really happening.

Jerusalem is not recognized by most of the world as Israel’s capital, its status and holy sites being contested by Palestine. So, Hamad’s words were a subtle hint that he was dispensing with any solidarity with or concern for the Palestinians, who keep losing land to Israeli settlers, in breach of international law.

And who gave the biggest boost to Israel’s claim of Jerusalem as its capital? Donald Trump.

The outgoing president announced in 2017 that America would recognize Jerusalem as such, and made the grand symbolic gesture of moving the US embassy to the city on May 14, 2018. That decision was condemned by almost every international body. Even the Pope hit out, saying, “I cannot silence my deep concern over the situation.”

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Now, stay with me, and let’s return to the football team. On May 13, in honour of Trump’s move, the club announced it was “permanently” changing its name to Beitar Trump Jerusalem Football Club.

Later that year, Hogeg bought the club and ‘Trump’ was quickly deleted from its name.

However, Trump’s main ally in the Jerusalem move was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and which club does he openly support…?

Around the time of Hogeg’s takeover, Netanyahu was firefighting on the domestic front. He was embroiled in corruption cases involving bribes, fraud, and allegations that he had tried to manipulate media coverage of a political rival in return for favours. The cases are still ongoing and no guilt has been attributed to the PM. But he’s faced public protests calling for him to resign.

In the spirit of democracy, his supporters have held counter-protests, and these have involved La Familia. Those demonstrations have seen them attack Palestinian journalists and vehicles with Palestinian license plates. There have been chants of ‘We hate all Arabs!”, and a post to their Facebook page included the line “Pay attention, you damn lefties – the rules of the games are now changing.”

At another La Familia protest, demonstrators reportedly sang a song praising right-wing extremist Yigal Amir, the gunman who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a pro-peace rally in support of the Oslo Accords in 1995

An improvement in the club’s image would clearly boost an ailing Netanyahu, even if only marginally.

The links in the chain aren’t complex: Anti-Arab/Palestinian feeling, a closeness to Netanyahu’s right-wing politics, and an embrace of Trump. Natural bedfellows are the UAE’s royals, who turn a blind eye to the transgressions against the Palestinians and do nothing to intervene politically. They also massively backed Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s idea of bringing about a Middle East ‘peace deal’ by effectively erasing the Palestinians’ dreams of statehood. And that’s the missing part of this toxic triangle.

Sheikh Hamad is an anonymous figure in the UAE, and has no power, despite being the son of the ruler. When asked by the Times of Israel about his role in recent days, he gave a ludicrous reply: “If you need more information about myself, you can [find] it on the web. There is Wikipedia [which] explains everything about myself.” Yet that page was created only a few days ago and contains nothing but information from this year about how “he is a very vocal supporter of the normalization agreement with Israel.”

Even the photographs taken at the signing of the Beitar deal show the sheikh looking more like a confused hostage victim than a member of a royal family sealing an important venture. Strangely, pictured with him and Hogeg is a younger Arab guy, grinning from ear to ear. That’s Hamad’s son Mohammed, who will apparently be responsible for the “professional side” of the UAE-Israel venture.

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The entire deal is hollow. There’s no money to be made in Israeli football, unlike in the rich pastures of England, Italy, France, or Spain. It just reveals how some leaders will stop at nothing to create and manipulate an image to sell to what they regard as a gullible public.

Palestinans will still be left living in third-world conditions, with all their rights stripped from them by an oppressive Israeli regime. The UAE will carry on buying American fighter jets and arms. And what’s $100 million to the Al Nahyan family, whose wealth is around $150 billion?

Beitar Jersualem is a pawn in a game of charades between two governments trying to distract attention from their other activities and sell a dream of peace and love. Sheikh Hamad made that clear with his platitude that he was going to show “the light, the right path” to the “misled and misguided” “youngsters” among Beitar fans.

And the icing on the cake? Benjamin Netanyahu commented: “It’s instructive that an Emirati has bought Beitar Jerusalem. It tells you how things are changing so rapidly.”

But just who are those changes for?

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