Israel announced on Thursday that it struck a deal with the world soccer organization FIFA to allow Israeli soccer fans to travel to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Under normal circumstances, Israeli citizens can currently only enter Qatar on a foreign (non-Israeli) passport, effectively barring entry to the majority of Israel’s citizens who are not dual citizens.
The deal with FIFA requires that Israelis buy a ticket to a soccer game at the World Cup, set to take place between Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, and then apply online for a Fan ID card that will allow them to book accommodation and enter Qatar.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hailed the FIFA agreement as an “another diplomatic achievement that will warm the hearts of soccer fans.”
In addition, Lapid expressed hope that the agreement “opens a gate to new, warm relations,” a reference to Israel’s burgeoning relations with a growing number of Arab Gulf states including Saudi Arabia.
Echoing Lapid’s words, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz articulated optimism that Israeli soccer fans could serve as goodwill ambassadors between the Jewish state and Qatar.
“Israelis visiting [Qatar] will strengthen the bonds of understanding between citizens of the two countries,” Gantz said.
The Israeli daily, Israel Hayom, reported in late May that senior Israeli defense officials were working with their Qatari counterparts to secure direct flights between Israel and the Arab Gulf state for the upcoming World Cup. Some 15,000 Israelis have reportedly already won draw tickets for the World Cup.
Unlike neighboring Arab Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Qatar has not been rushing to embrace diplomatic relations with Israel. Qatari-Israeli relations have been further complicated by the fact that Qatar has emerged as a major financial and ideological supporter of the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas.
In addition, Qatari-based global media outlet Al Jazeera has established itself as a vitriolic critic of the Jewish state.
While Qatar and Israel have never had full diplomatic relations, Israel was allowed in the 1990s to establish a trading office in the Qatari capital Doha. However, the Qatari regime decided to break off its trade relations with Israel in 2009 in protest over Israel’s military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In February 2022, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani ruled out diplomatic normalization with the Jewish state "in the absence of a real commitment to a two-state solution." In other words, unlike the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, Qatar directly links “normalization” with Jerusalem to the implementation of a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Qatar has nevertheless already served as a key player in the implantation of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel through its financial backing of Hamas.
The World Cup in Qatar is the first time in history that this global sports competition is held in an Arab state and in the Middle East. Initially it looked like the Israeli national soccer team would qualify for the World Cup finals - for the first time since 1970 - after impressive victories such as 5-2 over Austria. However, Israel eventually failed to qualify after losses to Denmark and Scotland.
While Qatari-Israeli diplomatic official relations may not happen anytime soon, Qatar and the Jewish state nevertheless signed an important commercial free trade agreement in November 2021 on diamonds and gold that further integrates the Israeli diamond industry with its Gulf Arab counterparts. Qatar’s recent, quiet opening to Israeli diamond traders and soccer fans could eventually lead to the establishment of full diplomatic bilateral relations between the two Middle Eastern states.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.