Tourism minister fast-tracks Eilat casino proposal

Yariv Levin meets with officials to review formal plan for hotel and gambling complex in southern resort town

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of gambling in a casino (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of gambling in a casino (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin was set to meet with government officials Wednesday to look at options for setting up a casino complex in the southern port city of Eilat, with the hope of presenting a viable plan to the government later this year.

Members of a committee tasked with reviewing the establishment of casinos in Israel were to attend, including the directors of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi, and other top officials from government ministries.

The aim of the committee is to produce within three months a memorandum for a bill to set up a hotel-casino area in Eilat, Army Radio reported, based on a document it said was circulated within the government. Casinos are illegal in Israel, and sports betting services are only allowed via Mifal HaPayis, the national lottery organization.

“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.”

Levin noted that no new hotels opened in Eilat in over a decade.

The memorandum will identify where the casino compound would be established, the conditions for issuing a license, and limitations for entry by Israeli citizens. Also under consideration will be limits on bets, the number of visits a person can make, and the amount of time visitors can spend inside in the casino in one stretch.

A Tourism Ministry report found that it would be economically viable to set up two to four casinos, each of which would also feature an adjacent conference center and a high-class hotel, adding a total of 4,000 hotel rooms to Eilat.

The report estimated the casinos would increase tourism to Eilat by 15 percent, that the average outlay by a casino gambler would be $160, and that the project would create 11,000 jobs.

An illustrative photo of a Mifal Hapayis lotto booth in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A Mifal Hapayis lotto booth in Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Levin’s meeting came amid media reports that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who opposes the casino plan, has adopted the recommendations of a committee led by his ministry calling for the removal of hundreds of slot machines operated by the national lottery company at its gaming centers around the country. Kahlon has said the machines are located in areas of weaker economic standing and amount to casino-like gambling.

“The right thing is to remove gambling from places where they are accessible to the population and to move them to one controlled compound,” Levin said Wednesday when asked about the proposed slot machine ban, and predicted that most of the gambling would likely be done by tourists.

Mifal Hapayis has said it will comply with whatever decision the government reaches regarding the slot machines, which are estimated to provide a third of the company’s annual income of around NIS 5 billion ($1.3 billion), Channel 2 reported.

Casinos in Israel have been a subject of debate for decades, and the idea still faces an uphill battle against both coalition and opposition MKs.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is behind the idea, coalition partners United Torah Judaism, Jewish Home, and Shas — three parties with a religious or ultra-Orthodox base — are completely opposed to the idea. In addition to Kahlon, Welfare Minister Haim Katz also rejects casinos, as do all of the parties in the parliamentary opposition.

The Yisrael Beytenu party, which recently joined the coalition, told Army Radio it would form an opinion on the matter when a real proposal is put forward.

However, Levin said he remained optimistic that once MKs were shown the kind of strict oversight that would be applied to the casinos, as well as the benefits for Eilat, enough of them would change their minds to form a majority in the Knesset.

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