JERUSALEM, Israel – Argentina's decision to cancel a soccer match with Israel this weekend doesn't seem very important in the overall scope of things. But what people don't understand is Israelis are addicted to soccer.
Many were excited about the upcoming game Saturday evening, a prelude to next week's World Cup finals in Russia, where Argentina will face Iceland in the first round. Tickets were bought up quickly, promising a sold-out crowd at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium, named after former Mayor Teddy Kolleck.
The special draw at this game was Argentina's celebrated player Lionel Messi, an extraordinary athlete with an alluring personality. Israelis love him.
But just a few days before the game was to take place, an extensive "public relations" campaign – led by senior PA official Jibril Rajoub – convinced Argentina that playing the Israeli team in Jerusalem just wasn't worth it. The media quoted several players and officials saying it seemed best to pull out.
At a press conference Wednesday evening, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev told reporters terror organizations sent death threats to the Argentine players and their families, targeting Messi in particular.
Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Photo, Screen Capture, Facebook
"Since they announced they would play against Israel, different terror groups have been sending messages and letters to players on the Argentina national team and their relatives, including clear threats to hurt them and on the lives of their families. These included video clips showing dead children," Regev said.
The Israeli Embassy in Argentina confirmed her statements.
"The threats and provocations directed at Lionel Messi, which logically aroused the solidarity of his colleagues and fear of playing the friendly [game] are no strangers to the daily life of Israel's civilian population whose sporting stars, to put it simply, have been on numerous occasions the targets of violence and attacks," the embassy tweeted.
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie reportedly said the threats were "worse than ISIS."
Regev refuted accusations that holding the game in Jerusalem instead of Haifa torpedoed the event.
"The Argentines never objected to having the game in Jerusalem. After all, this game was born of Messi's desire to visit Jerusalem, to kiss the Western Wall and to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher," YNet.com quoted her. "Jerusalem is not a political issue. Jerusalem is the source of pride for the State of Israel and the Jewish people all over the world."
Rajoub, meanwhile, said the cancellation served to promote FIFA's principles, ethics and mission to build "a bridge between nations rather than be a tool for political ends as the Israelis tried to use Messi and those stars from Argentina," thanking them for the decison, which he said was "on the right track."
That's amazing from the man who spearheaded what some called a terror campaign against Argentina's soccer team.
Among his other credentials, Rajoub served as national security advisor to the late PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Today, as in the past, few are willing to talk publicly about him.
This time Rajoub accomplished his goal and he's happy. He thinks he's taught Israel a lesson it won't soon forget.
What he may not fully understand is Israelis don't give up. Despite death threats from Iranian leaders and others vowing to wipe the Jewish state off the map, the next generation of Israelis are assuming the mantle. They're not rattled by Rajoub's accusations – or anyone else's – relegating them as "occupiers" of "Palestinian land."
Rajoub, whose name has been bandied about as a possible successor to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, succeeded in disappointing a lot of people. While he may believe he's elevated his standing both at home and abroad, it remains to be seen if the next round of Israel bashing is less profitable.