Will Israel get its first casino?

The plan promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build casinos in Eilat prompt a rare Knesset alliance between right and left, religious and secular.

al-monitor People play poker in a casino at the Azov-City gambling zone, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Sept. 23, 2010.  Photo by REUTERS/Vladimir Konstantinov.

Topics covered

ultra-orthodox, tourism, likud party, knesset, habayit hayehudi, gambling, casino industry, benjamin netanyahu

Feb 19, 2016

On at least three occasions Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to look into or promote the establishment of a casino in Israel. The first attempt took place during his first term as prime minister and then again in 2003 in his capacity as finance minister. The most recent attempt was made Feb. 17, when the premier set up a steering committee that would draw up a plan and prepare a bill for the establishment of a casino complex in the southern city of Eilat.

Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the tourism minister and the (future) steering committee’s chair, claim that a supervised casino complex in Eilat will save the southern resort city from economic collapse. As it turns out, over the past three months Levin has turned from a vehement detractor of the idea who had many cogent arguments against it into a staunch supporter. His change of heart came after delving into the issue and studying it, as he put it. To pre-empt his critics, Netanyahu announced ahead of time that his close associate, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, would not be investing in the Israeli casino.

Hatched by Levin and broached at a meeting Netanyahu held earlier this week, the plan proposes to set up a gambling complex in Eilat, consisting of four casinos as well as hotels and restaurants. The idea is to create a tourist attraction primarily for foreign tourists. The law will restrict Israeli gamblers in terms of when they are allowed into the complex and how much money they can gamble.

Yet nobody in the Knesset was really impressed with Netanyahu and Levin’s casino idea. The strong objection that immediately ensued from left and right — from within the coalition as well as from the back seats of the opposition — heralds the demise of Netanyahu’s current initiative. Similar to all its predecessors, this plan, too, is doomed to vanish into thin air. The reason is chiefly a political one. Netanyahu won’t be able to cobble together a majority for a bill that the ultra-Orthodox parties and Orthodox HaBayit HaYehudi, which make up the core of his narrow coalition, see as a bullfighter’s red muleta.

Nor can he rely on the opposition, where a secular and liberal party such as Meretz sees a casino as a dicey idea that runs counter to Israel’s values and the party’s own worldview. “We have always been opposed to a casino, and we always will be,” Meretz’s chairwoman Zehava Gal-On said. In fact, there are few issues in Israeli politics that practically elicit a consensus across the political spectrum — right and left, religious and secular — such as the broad opposition to casinos in Israel. It is for a reason that no party has ever raised the flag of the “first Israeli casino” in its election campaign, even though there are parties that openly talk about legalizing recreational drugs, including Meretz and Aleh Yarok (the Green Leaf Party).

In an incisive post on his Facebook page, Naftali Bennett, the education minister and chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, explained why his party would not support the establishment of a casino in Eilat. “Israel is not Las Vegas, nor will it be. We will take action against the building of a casino in Israel. By my book, having a casino in Israel is wrong both morally and practically. It is morally wrong because it contradicts the values of our state. It serves the strong and weakens the weak. It is practically wrong — because we are the ones who will have to pay for the damage such casinos will cause to the body and soul.”

In interviews with the media, Bennett further wondered, “How can we raise here a generation of children on the idea that the way to achieve goals is through hard work, effort and creativity and not the easy way when their fathers spend their evenings at the gaming tables?”

Aryeh Deri, the chairman of the Mizrahi-ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, was also quick to declare, “This won’t fly. Casinos will only serve the tycoons and cause damage to the weaker walks of society.” They were joined by Knesset members from other parties such as the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah, Zionist Camp and Likud, including Haim Katz, the minister for welfare and social services. They all made it clear that they would oppose the establishment of a casino. Within hours, a spontaneous across-the-board blocking majority was formed against Netanyahu’s bizarre move. In fact, apart from Netanyahu and Levin, there was nobody in the government to defend the idea.

Israelis have an ambivalent stand when it comes to casino gambling. On the one hand, many of them gamble in casinos abroad, especially the bustling ones in Varna and Bulgaria and the closer one in Taba, Egypt. In the early 2000s, casino boats off Israel’s territorial waters in Eilat were booming. Thousands of Israelis would spend long weekends there, leaving behind piles of money. In 1998, Israelis flocked to the Oasis casino in Jericho in the West Bank. However, when the second intifada broke out in 2000, the gambling era in the Palestinian Authority came to an end.

The above notwithstanding, the fact that many Israelis spend time in casinos abroad as well as in local illegal gambling establishments does not reflect the way the majority of the public perceives casinos, namely as a source of trouble, crime, prostitution, social problems and a serious incentive for developing an addiction to gambling. According to a public opinion poll conducted Feb. 17 by Panels Politics for the Knesset TV channel after Netanyahu went public with his initiative, 65% of Israelis were opposed to establishing a casino. This is not a surprising figure for a society that is fundamentally conservative and made up of Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and many observant Jews. Furthermore, in recent years, Israelis have been attaching great importance to social issues. They perceive casinos to be a means of taking advantage of the weakest. They feel that by their own very nature, casinos are conducive to crime and especially beneficial to tycoons.

Oren Hazan, a Likud Knesset member, ran a casino in Bulgaria before being elected to the Knesset. When that fact came to light, his image was seriously tarnished. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was Hazan who was one of the most vocal opponents to the idea of having a casino. He explained that of all people, he knows best how much evil such places can bring. “I’ve seen Israelis at the casinos in Bulgaria, totally losing their heads. … One bad streak at the roulette table and your life is dashed in a heartbeat. Israeli society is not ready for this yet," he said. Though unquestionably a political thug, Hazan does, however, understand very well the “popular Israeli spirit,” mainly the one that is represented by the Likud: Israelis prefer to gamble abroad.

Over the years, whenever the issue of the casino came up, even toward the end of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government, law enforcement agencies expressed their opposition. In 2008, the Knesset research center published a comprehensive document about the various aspects of having a casino in Israel. It presented objection from the police and Welfare Ministry, among others, due to the fact that “gambling is conducive to serious offenses such as violence, property crimes, corruption and substance abuse.”

It therefore remains unclear what prompted the prime minister, who uses polls as a bellwether for almost everything, to come up with the idea at this time. He also failed to look into the political feasibility of that plan. It seems that he himself is aware of the fact that a government like his won’t lend a hand to a casino. It’s possible that all Netanyahu wanted was another spin in order to brush off the affairs of Meni Naftali, the former chief caretaker of his residence who recently won a lawsuit against Netanyahu, and the ongoing wave of terrorism, all the while demonstrating that there are still some consensual issues in Israel. That, too, can be counted as some kind of an achievement.

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