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August 21, 2020 12:24 pm

Israel-UAE Normalization Deal Said to Be ‘Judo-Inspired’

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Israeli judoka Peter Paltchik is pictured with UAE judo officials the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in October 2018. Photo: Peter Palchick.

The International Judo Federation (IJF) and three Israeli judokas agree that the sport played a role in the historic normalization agreement announced by the Jewish state and the UAE last week.

The IJF published a statement on its website last Friday celebrating the accord, saying, “What if we also told you that it is a judo-inspired agreement? Many would not believe us, although they should.”

“When we address the topic of the pioneers, those who encouraged this rapprochement, those who inspired and promoted an agreement that, at that time, seemed if not impossible, at least extremely complicated, it is necessary to talk about judo,” the IJF added.

In 2015 and 2017, Israeli judokas competed in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam but were not permitted to showcase any national identification on their uniforms, and they were told that Israel’s anthem and flag would not be presented.

Twelve Israeli judokas brought home five medals from the event in 2017, but they were all forced to compete under the banner of the IJF. When Israeli judoka Tal Flicker was awarded a gold medal, the IJF flag was raised, and he quietly sang “Hatikvah” to himself as the IJF’s anthem played in the background.

The IJF subsequently suspended the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam tournament and vowed to take a “firm and constructive stance in the fight against discrimination in sport.”

Tournament organizers then agreed to abide by the IJF rules and the tournament was reinstated.

In its statement last week, the IJF recalled the sporting breakthrough between Israel and the UAE at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Glam Slam when Israeli judokas Sagi Muki and Peter Paltchik individually won gold medals, which led to the raising of the Israeli flag and the playing of “Hatikvah” for the first time in the history of the competition.

Israel’s sports minister at the time, Miri Regev, was also invited to award the medal to Muki.

The IJF said:

Judo smashed down the walls of misunderstanding and anger and for that we want to congratulate the signatories of the agreement from here. If Donald Trump wishes to appropriate the success and paternity of the gestation of the pact, it seems great to us because, after all, Trump himself organized an international judo tournament in Florida a few years ago, before he was ever a candidate for the White House. Maybe he drew on memories, maybe our values were a source of inspiration. In any case, his mediation has been decisive. But, if you allow us an ephemeral exercise of false modesty, we claim our share in this historic development.

Muki affirmed for The Algemeiner this week that judo had in fact served as “a bridge” for normalization between the UAE and Israel, starting in 2015, when Israeli judokas first competed in the Abu Dhabi tournament, and especially with the accomplishments Israel achieved at the 2018 competition in terms of the country’s flag being displayed and “Hatikvah” being played.

The gold medalist, 28, even recalled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling him after his victory in Abu Dhabi and thanking him for helping the national efforts to create peace between the two countries.

Israeli Olympic judoka Ori Sasson similarly told The Algemeiner that the accomplishment of having “Hatikvah” played at the Glam Slam helped “pave the road for an open, strong and lasting peace” between the two countries.

“Many times we [athletes] see ourselves as the ambassadors of Israel,” the 30-year-old said. “We reach places like the UAE in which we don’t have diplomatic relationships and then they play ‘Hatikvah’ for the first time. These are people-to-people relationships on a grassroots level that many times pave the road for an open, strong and lasting peace…I do believe that our judo team had a contribution, even if a small one, to this wonderful peace deal with the UAE.”

Paltchik, 28, explained it differently, telling The Algemeiner, “Was the agreement signed because of us? No. Have we shown that we can live in peace with each other? Yes.”

“I believe that this peace agreement is the result and combination of quite a few events and interests in the Middle East,” he said. “I believe that sports in general and judo events, in particular, have been a catalyst for understanding that in the end we are all people and working together well can help us build a better Middle East for our child’s future.”

“Our reality in the Middle East consists of over 100 years of conflict, but the sports competitions that give everyone a chance to compete show that it is possible otherwise,” Paltchik added. “I was excited and happy about the opportunity to come to Abu Dhabi and compete, and I was even happier to do so when I represented the State of Israel and not the World Judo Association.”

Now, following the normalization deal, Paltchik hopes that Israel and the UAE can cooperate and train their athletes together.

“I know we will be happy to host them here and will be very happy to fly there as ambassadors of goodwill representing a message of peace and brotherhood. I hope the walls that separate us fall,” he said.

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