Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hovav and Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan pose for a photo in Dubai after joining forces in December 2020
An Israeli football club that became a symbol of the country’s new friendship with Arab states is being sold off to a French businessman as its embattled owner faces sexual abuse and fraud charges.
Beitar Jerusalem, which counts former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu among its fans, made headlines in 2020 after an Emirati royal announced plans to become its co-owner and vowed to crack down on racist fans.
The deal was partly made possible by an historic treaty signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain which normalised relations and unlocked millions of dollars in trade pacts.
Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan's and Beitar Jerusalem FC owner Moshe Hogeg sign the agreement in Dubai, United Arab Emirates December 7, 2020
But a year on, the arrangement with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan has collapsed amid claims of financial misconduct, while its owner Moshe Hogeg is under house arrest after being accused of a series of sex crimes.
It is a dramatic change in fortune for the club, which is one of the most popular in Israel but has also struggled to cast off a reputation for anti-Arab racism among fans.
On Thursday, the club announced that it would be sold to the French businessman Stefan Malul but did not disclose what price had been agreed.
It comes several weeks after Mr Hogeg was arrested on suspicion of fraud, underage prostitution, sex trafficking and sexual harassment, according to the Times of Israel.
Mr Hogeg, who bought Beitar Jerusalem in 2018, denies all the allegations. He had announced plans to sell the club prior to his arrest, saying he could not tolerate anti-Arab racism among its "ungrateful" fans.
Fans of Israeli Beitar Jerusalem football club show their support during the team's training in Jerusalem on December 11, 2020, after a member of Abu Dhabi's royal family bought half of Beitar
Beitar Jerusalem suspended its plans to sell a fifty per cent stake of the club to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan in February 2021. The decision followed an investigation by Israel’s football association which found a "significant gap" between his declared wealth and his financial assets.
In an interview with The Telegraph in 2020, Mr Hogeg was brimming with optimism about the proposed sale and how it could improve the club’s reputation.
“When I spoke with Sheikh Hamad, I saw first of all a person who was very intelligent, but who also shared my ideology of co-existence and of being brave,” he said at the time.
“If we do it in the right way, if we succeed, I think we can inspire a lot of people worldwide."
Beitar is home to the infamous far-Right hooligan squad La Familia, which is known to chant "death to Arabs" during matches, as well as "here we are, the most racist football team in the country."
The club has never fielded an Arab player, even though the Arab community makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population – a trend that Mr Hogeg and Sheikh Hamad had vowed to put right when they were poised to become co-owners in 2020.
According to Infos-Israel, a French-language Israeli affairs website, some football fans had a lukewarm reaction to news of Mr Malul taking over, as few had heard of him.