TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli judoka Or Sasson on Saturday that he is “the true face of Israel” after the athlete won an Olympic bronze medal in Rio the day before.
On live TV, the prime minister told Sasson that “every boy and girl saw not just a great athlete but also a man of values.”
Netanyahu was presumably referring to Sasson’s poise in reaction to his defeated Egyptian opponent’s shunning his proffered hand after the first round of the tournament.
“You showed the true face of Israel, the beautiful, proud face of a strong country that seeks peace,” the prime minister said.
Directly addressing the incident, Netanyahu said, “He won, he stretched out his hand,” and showed “the beautiful, strong face of Israel.”
Islam El-Shahaby refused to shake hands with Sasson or even bow in accordance the rules of Judo. Amid boos from the crowd, the Egyptian was ordered by the referee to return to the floor to bow, and he complied by giving a quick nod.
El-Shahaby, who is reported to be the most anti-Israel sportsman in Egypt, later said he was quitting judo. He said, “You can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state [Israel], especially in front of the whole world.”
The incident made international headlines.
Netanyahu told Sasson on television that the encounter demonstrated how “alongside the development of ties with regional countries, there remains a lot of work to be done in the face of the awful propaganda [in the Arab world] that has been used against us for decades. This work will happen, God willing.”
“You’ve shown that if one wants something enough, the dream is achievable,” Netanyahu told Sasson, adding that he made “an entire nation happy.”
Sasson thanked the prime minister, saying he was proud to represent his country.
“It is a great privilege to represent the beautiful face of Israel,” Sasson told Netanyahu.
President Reuven Rivlin joined in the congratulations and praised Sasson’s handling of the incident with his opponent.
“Ori the Jerusalemite, my champion. … You wanted it and you were capable. We are all so proud of you,” Rivlin told him in a phone call.
“You’ve brought honor to the country in such a clear and gentlemanly way. To go and shake the hand of your Egyptian opponent is something all of Israel and all of Egypt is talking about, and here too you’ve won,” Rivlin told Sasson.
The International Olympic Committee set up a disciplinary commission to investigate El-Shahaby’s behavior.
“Things happen in the heat of the moment that are not acceptable,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We believe the Olympic movement should be about building bridges, not erecting walls. There’s absolutely no excuse for it.”
The International Judo Federation, however, saw the encounter through a different lens, saying it was a sign of progress that the bout even took place. “This is already a big improvement that Arabic countries accept to (fight) Israel,” spokesman Nicolas Messner said in an email. The competitors were under no obligation to shake hands, but a bow is mandatory, he added.
However, El-Shahaby’s “attitude will be reviewed after the games to see if any further action should be taken.”
Israeli team press attaché Brurya Bigman said: “This is his problem. It’s not our problem.”
Ofir Gendelman, Arabic language spokesman for Netanyahu, called the incident “shocking.” In a Twitter post, he said it “goes against the spirit of Rio 2016,” writing in Arabic that “sports are not the field for politics and extremism.”
In response to El-Shahaby’s snub, Egypt’s Olympic Committee said he was “alerted before the match to abide by all the rules and to have sporting spirit during his match with the Israeli player.”
“What the player did after the match, and not shaking hands with his rival, is a personal action,” the committee said in a statement.
Before the bout, a host at the Islamist-leaning TV network Al-Sharq told El-Shahaby to withdraw.
“My son, watch out. Don’t be fooled, or fool yourself, thinking you will play with the Israeli athlete to defeat him and make Egypt happy,” he said. “Egypt will cry; Egypt will be sad and you will be seen as a traitor and a normalizer in the eyes of your people.”
In a Facebook post, Egyptian journalist Galal Nassar said: “As long as you agreed to play an Israeli champion in the Olympics, you should have exchanged the greeting.”
Nasser wrote that El-Shahaby’s move had the adverse effect of giving the world the chance to side with the Israeli athlete. “We have lost in terms of sports and politics,” Nassar said.
Sasson’s bronze medal was Israel’s second, with Yarden Gerbi bagging a medal for women’s under 63 kg Judo earlier in the week.