A rebellion inside the coalition looks set to stymie plans to create a large “Las-Vegas style” casino and tourism complex in Eilat, following strong objections from religious parties Bayit Yehudi, United Torah Judaism and Shas to the proposal.
In 2015 after the general election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested that Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, both from his Likud party, head up a team to explore the possibility of establishing a casino in Eilat as a way of boosting its international tourism profile.
The current plan would establish two to four casinos in the southern city.
Netanyahu convened a meeting of the committee examining the idea on Wednesday, saying that the feasibility study was being conducted “in order to save Eilat from economic collapse and to create thousands of jobs in the city.”
The prime minister’s religious coalition partners, however, issued vocal opposition to the proposal on moral grounds, saying that the establishment of casinos would cause severe social problems such as gambling addiction, monetary loss and family disruption.
Additionally, Yesh Atid and Meretz declared that they would oppose the proposal, while the Zionist Union said that it would in all likelihood work against it as well. This seemingly presents insurmountable political opposition within the Knesset to the establishment of casinos in Eilat.
Bayit Yehudi chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that the idea was “forbidden, morally and practically,” and would cause social and financial damage to society.
“It is forbidden morally because casinos contradict the values of our state, serve the strong and weaken the weak, and practically because we will all need to fund the damage and injury to the body and soul that will come along with a casino,” said Bennett.
Bennett said he would actively work to prevent the establishment of casinos.
“Israel isn’t Vegas and it won’t be. We will oppose it.
Levin hit back at this coalition partner, saying that Bayit Yehudi’s “righteous” stance ignored the bad economic situation in Eilat.
“The righteousness of Bayit Yehudi members, who ignore the massive amount of illegal gambling in Israel and who don’t offer any alternative for Eilat, is not serious,” he said.
“I expect government ministers to deal with the issues affecting their ministries and not to interfere in an issue they haven’t studied, whose facts they are not familiar with, and of which they don’t understand a thing,” fumed Levin.
Bennett was not the only member of the coalition to protest the proposed casino.
Senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said that the party is “totally opposed” to the idea.
“What it does to people, to families – it breaks apart families, causes severe societal damage. Everyone knows this,” said Gafni.
The Shas party said in a statement that casinos would serve “the tycoons alone, the capitalists, and will cause heavy damage to the weaker sectors of society.
“Shas represents the poor in Israel and the weaker sectors, works for them and therefore will oppose the establishment of a casino with full force. Casinos will cause only destruction of families and severe injury to those who have nothing already.”
The draft plan that has been drawn up by the planning committee emphasizes that the goal is to raise the status of the Red Sea resort as an international travel destination, and would create an “integrated resort” on unused land belonging to the city airport, including hotels and conference centers, as well as commercial and recreational facilities and amusement parks.
A Tourism Ministry document outlining the plans opined that “only a casino” accompanied by the proposed tourist amenities could create the required increase in tourism to the city.
The plan also proposes to introduce “significant limitations” on Israeli citizens wishing to gamble at the casinos, and to create an effective enforcement framework for such limitations and a “support system which will provide assistance for dealing with negative phenomena.”
The plan acknowledges the social problems that are generated by casinos, allowing for a 15 percent tax on casino earnings to deal with the “external, negative influences of gambling, such as crime and addiction, which accompany casinos around the world.”
The document suggests measures such as limiting the amount of money Israelis can gamble, limiting the number of times they can enter the casino, instituting entrance fees for Israeli citizens and prohibiting Israelis who receive state aid from gambling.
“These limitations could provide oversight for citizens who gamble and reduce addiction,” the document argues.