Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday announced the formation of a steering committee headed by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to explore the possibility of allowing casinos in the southern resort city of Eilat.
The announcement, which immediately drew ire from the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties, was being considered in order “to save the city of Eilat from economic failure and to create thousands of jobs,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
“This is going to be Eilat’s lifesaver,” the prime minister said later at a special top-level meeting to discuss the issue, according to the Ynet news website.
Although casino gambling in Israel is illegal, some Israelis take cruises from Eilat on casino boats outside the country’s territorial waters to gamble. Operators of the casino boats have been accused of organizing illegal gambling, money laundering and tax offenses.
Sources at the meeting said Eilat’s tourism industry has shrunk by 40 percent in the last five years, and that illegal gambling in Israel is an NIS 11-15 billion ($281-385 million) industry, according to the report.
Netanyahu reportedly favors a proposal for casinos that would be open to foreign tourists only, but a counter-proposal by the Tourism Ministry calls for the casinos to be open to Israeli citizens as well.
The steering committee announced by Netanyahu Wednesday will be made up of Levin, Prime Minister’s Office director Eli Groner, the director of the Transportation Ministry, and representatives from the Finance, Justice, Public Security and Interior ministries, as well as the mayor of Eilat.
Earlier in the day, the Jewish Home, Shas and United Torah Judaism factions said they would oppose any plan to allow gambling in the southern resort city.
Jewish Home head and Education Minister Naftali Bennett said the plan is neither ethical nor practical.
“As the minister responsible for education, who fights hard every day against harm to our children, for youths and women, I will act against establishing a casino. We will teach our kids values and not gambling,” he said.
“Israel is not Vegas and it will not be,” Bennett charged.
Levin, who backs the casino plan, shot back at Bennett, saying “the Jewish Home party will bring about the total destruction of the city of Eilat.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu assured participants that one of his biggest supporters, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, did not intend to set up an establishment in Eilat, rebuffing claims that he had a special interest in pushing through the gaming licenses.
During the 1990s, Adelson — the owner of the staunchly pro-Netanyahu tabloid newspaper Israel Hayom — attempted to open a casino in Israel but was thwarted by various tourism ministers over the years.