JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sparked yet another international inferno with, of all things, comments about American basketball that critics have condemned as inflammatory and that even supporters acknowledge further endangers a peace process already on life support.
“All of Israel,” Netanyahu thundered earlier this week, “is behind the Cavaliers,” referring to the basketball club from Cleveland, Ohio competing tomorrow in the National Basketball Association championship series, known in the U.S. as the NBA Finals, which begin tonight in Oakland, California.
Netanyahu’s comments were directed at David Blatt, the head coach of the Cavaliers, who last year shepherded Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to the Euroleague finals and whose family lives in Israel. On other occasions, Netanyahu has referred to Cleveland as “Israel’s team” and a spokesman previously issued congratulations to “David Blatt, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the City of Cleveland on their thrilling victory as Eastern Conference champions of the NBA.”
The prime minister’s latest remarks, while welcomed warmly in Cleveland, immediately kindled a diplomatic firestorm at home and abroad.
“Bibi’s comments are just the latest assault on the embattled Palestinian people,” said Saeb Erekat, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, to the London daily Al Hayat. “His blatant pandering to the Jewish community of Cleveland, coupled with his earlier statements about how Israel has its own team in the U.S., just shows how dependent his far-right regime has become on American support, and dollars.”
Erekat pointed to a litany of public statements by Netanyahu earlier this year thought by many to undermine the peace process. “How can we possibly negotiate in good faith with a leader who is so clearly in thrall to one basketball team, and the Jewish community it represents?” the Palestinian wondered.
Meanwhile, Jibril Rajoub, a Palestinian diplomat and the current chairman of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Sports, Culture, and International Athletic Organizational Boycotts, fresh off an unsuccessful bid to eject Israel from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, hinted that his group may mount an effort to boot the Jewish state from FIBA, the International Basketball Association. “Israel’s despicable attempts to exploit sport to further its political aims must be resisted by all available means,” Rajoub told Ma’an, the Palestinian news agency. “Whether it’s preventing Palestinian soccer players from moving around their own land or favoring a Jewish-run basketball team, this pattern of politicizing sport needs to end.”
Netanyahu’s remarks provoked a mild rebuke from the Obama Administration, which characterized them as “not helpful” to the sputtering peace process. “At a delicate time when it’s especially important that neither side take unilateral action, Israel’s one-sided statements of advocacy don’t contribute to a positive solution,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf during her daily briefing. “It’s time for the Israelis and the Palestinians to set aside petty disputes, sit down together at the negotiating table, and make the hard but necessary decisions to advance peace and security in the region.”
Even Iran, currently engaged in marathon talks with the U.S. and its allies over its fledgling nuclear weapons program, made its views known. “These hateful comments by the so-called leader of the Zionist regime will only hasten its demise,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told a throng of worshippers at Friday prayers, according to the Fars News Agency, as translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “The Zionist entity’s days are numbered, and its reliance on the support of wealthy American Jewish enablers showcases its moral and material emptiness,” Khamenei said.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s office could not be reached for comment, but a senior government official speaking on condition of anonymity expressed incredulity that seemingly benign remarks about a sporting event. “Gimme a break,” the source said. “You would think, with ISIS on our doorstep, a civil war in Syria that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and an Iranian nuclear program on the verge of breakout, that the world has more important things to worry about than a basketball game. Isn’t sports supposed to bring us all together?”
Yet even in Israel, there was dismay at the pro-Cavalier remarks. “Look, the reaction was a little bit extreme,” said Yitzhak Herzog, head of the opposition Labor Party. “But Bibi’s careless comments favoring one team over another only reinforce how out of step his approach is with the region and the world. This isn’t leadership, it’s a total failure to lead. At this point, I think even David Blatt would make a better prime minister than Bibi.”
Netanyahu’s comments also drew fire from Israelis who hail from the Northern California, home of the Golden State Warriors, who are the Cavaliers’ opponents in the NBA Finals. “I never really liked Bibi anyway, but now that he’s so clearly rooting for Cleveland, well, he just lost my vote all over again,” said Hope Alper, chairwoman of Former Residents of Berkeley and Oakland Living Very Part-Time in Israel (FRBOLVPTI). “I’ve got two words to say to him and his people: Go Dubs!”
(Cindy Sheehan, a leftist anti-Israel activist, was rumored to be planning a massive demonstration in San Francisco on Saturday to protest what she calls “Bibi’s bloodthirsty, warmongering provocation of the peace-loving people of the Bay Area.”)
But not everyone condemned Netanyahu’s remarks. United States Senator Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) voiced wholehearted support for the Prime Minister’s position earlier this week, reportedly telling a Jewish group that “when I was in Israel last week, more people wanted to talk with me about the Cavs than Israel policy issues.”
Cavaliers’ superstar Lebron James declined to comment specifically about Netanyahu’s support for his team and instead told ESPN that “I try to avoid politics, especially in the Middle East, and right now I’m focused on bringing a championship to my hometown area for the first time in half a century. But, hey, who wouldn’t be excited about the head of a country rooting for our team? If it fires us up to top Golden State, we’ll take it.”
But Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ star and Most Valuable Player of the League, brushed off the comments with ease. “We’ve faced a ton of adversity as a team, and we feel like the underdogs here already,” Curry told Sports Illustrated. “If Israelis want to support Lebron and Blatt, that’s fine with us. Even if one family in Israel wakes up early to cheer us on, I’ll be satisfied. May the best team win.”
Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off tonight at 6 PM Pacific Time.
[Author’s note: In case it wasn’t obvious, this is a parody. Almost all quotes have been fabricated.]