The Cards Are Stacked Against Netanyahu's Casino Initiative

Economically, a casino is a sure bet. Politically, though, it’s a head-first dive into an empty pool, especially considering that more than one-third of the coalition members are ultra-Orthodox or national-religious.

An illustration showing Netanyahu in a tux throwing around money above a roulette table. Minister Yariv Levin stands behind him.
Amos Biderman

For 20 years there’s been talk of building a casino in the resort city of Eilat. And why not? Gambling establishments exist in Europe’s most civilized venues; Israelis like to visit them, usually playing for small stakes. The heavy players tend to lose big and the local government rakes in easy taxes.

Economically, a casino is a sure bet. Politically, though, it’s a head-first dive into an empty pool. Religious parties all over the world see gambling as original sin. More than one-third of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition of 61 MKs are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or national-religious. Even external support from Avigdor Lieberman’s party will not help in this case. And if Likud MK Oren Hazan, who was in a “casino milieu” in Bulgaria in his pre-Knesset days, is also against the idea – then all bets are off.

Netanyahu’s political considerations here are unclear. If the basis for his initiative is his slogan, “In the end, everything I want I get” – as he declared this week – we should worry lest our leader has developed megalomaniacal propensities. Israel is still a democracy, and legislation requires a parliamentary majority. Maybe he intends to win over the Haredim by prohibiting the casino from operating on Shabbat and allocating some of the profits to religious institutions, child allowances and so forth?

The premier enlisted Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) to promote the initiative. Thorough as ever, Levin submitted a detailed report on the subject to Netanyahu, who set up a committee to consider its implementation.

I asked Levin why he changed his mind after declaring in September that a casino could turn Eilat into a hotbed of crime. Now he’s saying that regulating all the gambling in the country, and also establishing a state-controlled casino in the southern city, will reduce crime. He told me that three months of investigating the subject had shown him the light. “Las Vegas is considered one of the safest cities in the United States,” he said. “Singapore has one of the highest levels of personal security anywhere. There are other examples, too. Proper control and inspection mechanisms can provide a high standard of personal security.”

Levin is not talking only about casinos that will be part of a new hotel complex and subject to endless regulations, but about the creation of a gambling authority that will deal with all the betting in Israel, including the National Lottery, the Loto and the sports Toto. I asked him about Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement that, for the sake of Israel’s children, he will not allow a casino to be built in Israel.

“That’s a joke,” Levin said. “First of all, children will not be allowed in the casino. But at home they see their father gambling on the Internet, and when they watch a soccer game they are flooded with commercials, and when Dad goes to the lottery booth and bets huge amounts, sometimes beyond his means, the kids go with him and the form is sometimes even filled out in their name.”

Bennett leads a religious party, I said to Levin, and the religious population just doesn’t like gambling. Levin: “I didn’t see him forgo hundreds of classrooms and school gyms built with National Lottery funds.” The man has an answer for every question. Still, Levin doesn’t know how he’ll overcome the political hurdle.

“If I were to submit the bill today, it would not pass,” he said. “But we’ve seen before that ways can be found” – a reference to the governance, army-draft and referendum laws – “and I believe that we have a chance, with the Haredim or without them. In the meantime, the bill will be on the shelf.”

Eilat is known to be suffering financially, though until this week we didn’t know that it’s “on the brink of economic collapse,” according to Levin. If the resort city is being battered by the tourism shortfall, the situation in Jerusalem is far worse. Maybe Israel’s capital should be dealt with first.

Contrary to popular belief, not everything Netanyahu does is motivated by extraneous interests. Maybe the casino initiative is purely economic. He told a meeting of relevant ministers and officials that his patron, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, will not invest in an Israeli casino. That’s very nice, but the prime minister has ties with other tycoons, here and abroad, and he made no commitment on their behalf.

Even in the unlikely event that Netanyahu and Levin overcome the political-parliamentary hurdles, however, it will be five-six years at least before the roulette wheels start turning. If it happens, Israel, which has long since despaired of being a light unto the nations, will at least be a good bet for them.