A Casino in Eilat? It Might Merely Be Netanyahu’s Power Politics

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Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, July 2, 2013.Credit: Tali Meyer

It’s doubtful a casino will be built in the southern resort town Eilat anytime soon, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the idea is disconcerting.

First, it’s hard to believe that this is what the Israeli prime minister is dealing with, as if the country had no other problems.

Second, at the beginning of a meeting on the subject Wednesday, Netanyahu felt it necessary to state that the casino project was in no way linked to his close friend, U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. This shows how entangled the prime minister is with the tycoons.

And the denial came before anyone even uttered a word about the issue. If a casino actually is built, who can promise that Adelson won't do the building?

So why is Netanyahu talking about a casino now? Maybe it’s a political signal to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avidgor Lieberman that the prime minister would be happy to see him back in the governing coalition. Lieberman is a good friend of Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff, who’s in the casino business and in the past showed interest in opening a casino in Israel.

It could be that the casino initiative is a maneuver against Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who as a religious Jew rejects gambling. Bennett has to oppose the idea. The confrontation lines between Bennett and Netanyahu are nearly as stark as on the Israeli-Syrian border, and when it comes to Bennett, the prime minister appears to relish stoking tensions at the front.

A decade and a half ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was very close to Schlaff, pushed the idea of a casino in Israel. But even the Bulldozer quickly dropped the idea. One might wager that with Netanyahu, too, the casino proposal is just spin.