Sepp Blatter says he's on 'mission of peace' to Israel

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JERUSALEM (AP) — FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Tuesday he is on a "mission of peace" to resolve tensions between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer federations in the hope of staving off a Palestinian bid to oust Israel from the world governing body.

As part of his vision of using sports as a bridge between people, Blatter proposed holding a peace match in Zurich between the Israeli and Palestinian national teams. Seated alongside Blatter, the president of the Israeli federation, Ofer Eini, immediately accepted the offer. But the main issue bringing the FIFA president to the region appeared to remain unresolved.

Blatter met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday following a Palestinian bid to suspend Israel from FIFA.

Palestinians say Israeli security restrictions are limiting movement of Palestinian players, visiting teams and soccer equipment and have put forward a proposal to suspend Israel from world soccer at the 209-nation FIFA meeting on May 29. Blatter opposes the suspension vote, saying Israel has not broken FIFA statutes in a political issue outside of soccer's control.

Blatter is scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday and has repeatedly said he would not disclose details of his conversations with Netanyahu before that time.

But Blatter, who fashions himself as a peacemaker, said he hoped to reach a quick solution to the crisis and perhaps even spark further cooperation between the sides.

"Football is more than a game. Football has the power to connect people. Football has the power to construct bridges," he said. "Football shall unite people and not divide people."

Israel has rejected the Palestinian bid as an attempt to politicize sports. Eini said his organization has done its best to assist Palestinian soccer and will continue to do so, but that many issues were beyond its control and needed to be resolved at a political level.

Israel has cited security concerns as the reason behind the occasional restrictions placed of Palestinian players, particularly in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas.

Rotem Kemer, the Israeli federation's chief executive, said Israel has approved more than 95 percent of the Palestinian requests this year for players to move between Gaza and the West Bank and to travel abroad.

In a conference call to foreign journalists, he said the Palestinian association was holding its Israeli counterpart "hostage in a fight against our government."

Netanyahu praised Blatter for opposing the politicization of sport.

"Sport is a vehicle of goodwill among nations. The thing that could destroy the Football Association is politicizing it. You politicize it once with Israel, then you politicize it for everyone, and it will cause the deterioration of a great institution," Netanyahu said.

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