Israel Moving toward Casinos

Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (L.) is part of a government team actively developing plans for a casino complex in the port city of Eilat. Levin called a casino “the means” to an end, not the primary objective.

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By the end of this year, the government of Israel could be looking at plans for a casino complex for the resort town of Eilat, according to the Times of Israel. Feasibility studies indicate such a project could pull in up to $US500 million within several years of operation.

Army Radio cited an internal document indicating a committee is at work to produce a casino bill within the next three months. “This is an essential process. Eilat can’t compete in the world of tourism without at least new hotels,” Levin told the radio station. “The casino isn’t the goal—it’s the means.”

Two to four casinos are considered optimal in the southern port city where no new hotels have opened in more than a decade. Each casino would reportedly also feature an adjacent conference center and a luxury hotel. All in all, the complex could add 4,000 hotel rooms to Eilat.

A report estimates the developments could boost local tourism by 15 percent and create 11,000 jobs.

Casinos are illegal in Israel, and sports betting is limited to Mifal HaPayis, the national lottery. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who reportedly opposes the casino plan, has joined the call to remove hundreds of slot machines operated by the national lottery company at gaming centers around the country. Kahlon has said the machines are tantamount to casino gaming and should likewise be illegal, at least in community centers where they may appeal to vulnerable people including the poor.

Levin seemed to agree with that stance, saying, “The right thing is to remove gambling from places where they are accessible to the population and to move them to one controlled compound.”

The slots are estimated to provide a third of the lottery’s annual income of around NIS 5 billion (US$1.3 billion), reported the Times.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports casinos, coalition partners United Torah Judaism, Jewish Home, and Shas are staunchly opposed, as is Welfare Minister Haim Katz.

Levin envisions a quartet of casinos on a thoroughfare reminiscent of the Las Vegas Strip, reports the World Casino Directory. But a similar plan in the 1990s was easily defeated. At the time, Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson floated the idea of a Sands casino in the country; despite his longtime association with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson could not overcome opposition from religious groups and Israeli law enforcement.

Another project that came to fruition—the Oasis Casino in Jericho—opened in 1998, but two years later was closed “for security reasons” by the Israeli army. Before that, two attempts by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to open casinos failed.

According to a previous report in Globes, Kahlon told a morning news program, “Everyone knows that there won’t be a casino … It was obviously just a ridiculous rumor, because there won’t be a casino.”