Netanyahu's Eilat Casino Plan Faces Strong Objections Within Coalition

Transport Minister Levin to lead viability study, as Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and United Torah Judaism express strong opposition to construction of casino.

Netanyahu and Dery at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin was appointed head of an interministerial team that is to study the feasibility of establishing casinos in Eilat. Members of coalition parties Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and United Torah Judaism object to the idea.

Levin was appointed during a special meeting convened Wednesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and attended by Levin, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and the directors general of his ministry and of the Prime Minister’s Office.

A preliminary examination by the Tourism Ministry indicates that setting up a casino compound, consisting of two to four casinos in Eilat, would be  profitable. The casinos would be built separately from the hotels in the area vacated by the airport.

The officials who conducted the examination recommended permitting tourists as well as Israelis to gamble, in order to divert Israelis from gambling abroad, or on illegal websites. 

The ministry recommends imposing restrictions to reduce potential crime and addiction, as other countries have done. For example, Israelis could be charged entry fees, or be limited in time or money.

Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz (Likud) said he opposes the idea because it would increase the number of gambling addicts in Israel. He said he will take to the issue to the cabinet.

Cabinet members Arye Dery of Shas and Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi have also come out against the idea, as has Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism.

“The establishment of a casino in Israel is both morally and practically unacceptable,” said Bennett, who is the education minister and the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi.

“It’s morally unacceptable because a casino contradicts the values of our country, strengthens the strong and weakens the weak. And it is unacceptable practically because we will all need to subsidize the physical and emotional damage that the casino will bring with it,” Bennett said.

Shas took a similar line, saying “casinos in Israel will serve only the tycoons and the rich, and will cause serious damage to the weaker strata.”

The casino proposal is part of the government’s efforts to save the southern port city from collapse, PMO officials  said after the meeting.

According to a figure who spoke to Haaretz on the condition of anonymity, at the meeting Netanyahu said that the Jewish-American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson had clarified he would not invest in an Israeli casino under any circumstances. Adelson is the proprietor of the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom.

At first the participants at the meeting considered allowing only foreign passport holders to gamble in the casino. But the Tourism Ministry, which looked into it at Netanyahu’s request, recommended setting up several casinos, which would serve Israelis as well.

Netanyahu was interested in operating a casino in Eilat during his first term as prime minister too, as well as during his term as finance minister.

The police warned this week that allowing gambling would “generate crime.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party, said that he would decide on his position only after seeing a draft bill on the casino.

The number of gambling addicts who have been treated by the Social Affairs Ministry has risen steadily over recent years, according to figures Haaretz obtained from the ministry. The ministry is treating 950 people for gambling addiction, a 46% increase over previous years, and an additional 250 people are in the process of being diagnosed for treatment.

The number of addicts is twice as high in southern Israel. While the national average is 0.1 addicts per 1,000 people, in Be’er Sheva and the rest of the south it is 0.19 per 1,000. In Jerusalem there are 0.07 addicts per 1,000 people, in Tel Aviv 0.09 and in Haifa and the north  0.13.

At 85% of the total, most of the gambling addicts in treatment are male. Half are between 26 and 45 years old, while 22% are between  46 and 55. There are 50 minors among those being treated, including eight children under 11.

“A casino is likely to increase the number of gambling addicts, extend their distress and harm their families and have an adverse effect on their families’ economic and employment situation,” said Aharon Shabi, director of addiction treatment services in the Social Affairs Ministry.

“Gambling is accompanied by violence. The gambler needs emotional gratification and the attempts to win back his losses create a destructive cycle with numerous negative repercussions and inability to control this behavior,” he said.