Peer caught between sport and politics
SHAHAR Peer and Slovenia's Polona Hercog met in the second round of the ASB Classic in Auckland yesterday. Their distinctly low-key match would normally be dismissed as a triviality on the global sporting stage but it's taken on an extraordinarily high profile because of Peer's nationality. A 22-year-old Israeli athlete is being pushed into the murky waters of international politics against her will.
The Auckland Tennis Centre was evacuated shortly before 11am yesterday because an unattended bag sparked a bomb scare that coincided with protests against the Australian Open-bound Peer's appearance at the WTA Tour event. Protesters were planning to make another scene today after 500 spectators were ordered to leave the courts. A group called Global Peace and Justice, led by veteran protester John Minto, had sent Peer a letter asking her to withdraw ''as a demonstration of your commitment to peace''. Minto's group is opposed to Israel's treatment of Palestinians and supports a boycott of the country, including sporting contacts. This is the second straight year Peer has been caught in the middle in Auckland.
Last year's tournament coincided with a major Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. About 20 protesters gathered outside the courts and called for her withdrawal. At the time, she said the fighting was ''not easy on any of us'' but was surprised to have been singled out. All she wanted to do was play tennis. The letter to Peer yesterday acknowledged it was a ''significant sacrifice'' she was being asked to make.
''Because of your high profile in Israel you could assist peace efforts greatly by speaking out against Israeli government policy,'' the letter said. ''Your silence will indicate to us your sympathy with (the Israeli government).'' It said her actions can be ''more visible than a trade or investment boycott and can have an important psychological impact. We saw this with the successful sports boycotts against apartheid.''
Australian Open officials were last night confident their existing security arrangements would deal with any planned protesters against Peer at Melbourne Park this month. Tournament director Craig Tiley spoke with officials in Auckland after yesterday's incident. Local police claimed the security scare was not linked to the demonstration against Peer.
''The details of what we do with security we do not discuss publicly,'' Tiley said. ''But we have been doing due diligence and we are always very confident in the work of our security team to manage very appropriately and efficiently the safety of our fans and our staff. We have got a great security partner, and Shahar, like every player that comes on site, is afforded the same processes.''
A spokesman for Australians for Palestine, Moammar Mashni, said pro-Palestinian groups in Melbourne are meeting to work out their response to the participation of Peer in the Australian Open.
Sam Salcman, the honorary secretary of the Zionist Federation of Australia said: ''The boycott campaign is nothing new It happened in New Zealand last year and didn't bear much fruit. This is part of an international attempt to de-legitimise and demonise Israel. This is not going to help the peace process one iota.''
Peer was prevented from playing at the Dubai Championships last year after she was denied a visa by the UAE, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. A number of players, including Venus Williams, condemned the action. Then WTA chief Larry Scott considered cancelling the tournament, but chose not to after consulting Peer. Tournament director Salah Tahlak said Peer was refused on the grounds that her appearance could incite anger in the Arab country before the WTA said it would review future tournaments in Dubai. Due to the action, the Tennis Channel did not televise the event and The Wall Street Journal dropped its sponsorship .