* Jerusalem’s status at heart of soccer dispute
* Match was to be Argentina’s final pre-World Cup warm-up
* Palestinian soccer chief urged fans to burn Messi pictures
By Ori Lewis and Ali Sawafta
JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH, June 6 (Reuters) - Palestinian soccer officials praised Argentina and its star Lionel Messi on Wednesday for calling off a friendly match against Israel that Israeli officials had planned to move to Jerusalem.
Argentina’s final World Cup warm-up against Israel was originally slated to be held in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa but was moved to Jerusalem at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain announced on Tuesday it was cancelled.
“The Israelis tried to use Messi and those stars from Argentina, and I would like to thank them and appreciate their decision, which I think was on the right track,” Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told a news conference on Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
At the entrance to the news conference was a placard saying “From Palestine, thank you Messi” with Argentinian and Palestinian flags, under a big photo of Rajoub posing with the Barcelona ace.
It was a change of tone from Rajoub, who on Sunday had called for Palestinians to burn replica Messi shirts and photos if the Argentinian played in Jerusalem.
Israel’s Football Association accused the Palestinians of crossing a “red line” by inciting anger towards the Argentinian players in order to scupper the match. It said it would complain to soccer world governing body FIFA about Rajoub’s comments, which it described as “physical and brutal threats”.
The Palestinians opposed the decision to hold the match in Jerusalem, accusing Israel of seeking to use the fixture, and especially the presence of global star Messi, to underpin Israel’s claim to the Holy City.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, while Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as capital of their own state. Most countries say Jerusalem’s status must be left to be resolved in future peace talks, although U.S. President Donald Trump reversed American policy last year to recognise the city as capital of Israel.
Palestinian soccer officials say they would have had no issue if the match were held as planned in Haifa, but it should not have been moved to Jerusalem.
Zeev Elkin, a senior Israeli cabinet minister, said on Army Radio that holding the match in Jerusalem was a matter of national pride. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement “the politicisation of Argentina’s move is very worrying”. (Writing by Ori Lewis Editing by Peter Graff)