The Prime Minister's Office is trying to push forward a plan to build a 4,000-dunam gambling casino near Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev. It would be managed by Mifal Hapayis, the state lottery. Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Negev Regional council, expects the casino to turn Mitzpeh Ramon into a "little Las Vegas." Any comparison of the tiny development town, with its 20 percent unemployment, to glittering cities in rich countries full of tourists is baseless. The casino might bring quick prosperity to some residents of the area in the short run, but in the long run it could bring social destruction.
Gambling is an activity that cannot be blocked. At best, it can be restrained or at least the negative - and, indeed, sometimes criminal - impact it has on the surroundings can be reduced. It's enough to take a look at illegal gambling in Israel to see what can be expected for Mitzpeh Ramon and the entire Negev if gambling is legalized and institutionalized there.
No legitimate casino in the world has managed to keep out illegal gambling. On the contrary, alongside every "respectable" and luxurious casino there are dubious casinos whose owners eventually take over the legitimate casinos. Every casino attracts industries like a black market in banking and accessible sex and drug sales, and every casino attracts criminals looking for easy money and easy prey. Alongside the illegal gambling in Eilat and South Tel Aviv are escort services where the women are mostly smuggled into the country by gangs from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The promise that the casino will provide jobs to thousands of unemployed people is baseless and deceptive. Gambling professionals nowadays come from Eastern Europe. Workers in the hotels, entertainment and food industries will probably come from Third World countries for very low wages and very poor living conditions.
Even if some of the Negev residents do find work, their towns will fill up with foreigners poorer than the residents. The bitter experience on Indian reservations in the United States shows that the quick profits can turn into disaster - and the Negev Bedouin would be the first to be harmed. A nearby, accessible casino would attract a weak population trying to gamble with its little savings. The elderly people who cash in their meager social security checks and spend their days and nights shoving coins into slot machines in American gambling centers are an example of this.
The claim that the investments in the casino will be regulated and monitored is easy to refute. Experience from the communications industry, much less aggressive than the gambling industry, is enough to show how impotent the state regulators can be, compared to the power of the investors.
Mifal Hapayis claims the casino will encourage tourism, but the casino tourists - if they actually do arrive - are not the kind who enrich local culture. It's not even necessary to go into the urban and ecological damage that would be done by the development around the casino.
On the backs of the poorest people in the country and obsessive gamblers, Mifal Hapayis would accumulate enormous amounts of money that would be spent on education and culture (and helping gambling addicts kick the habit). But the Negev, where all the social problems of Israel are intensified in the stark environment, and which needs sensitive nurturing, could become irreparably damaged, and all the cash in Mifal Hapayis won't be able to help.