Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday agreed with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin's plan to boost Eilat as a tourist destination by building up to four casinos.
The announcement of the initiative was followed by strident disapproval from ultra-Orthodox political parties and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Israelis are to be permitted to gamble, but only under certain restrictions. The casinos will be built as part of a tourism complex, not inside hotels.
While Netanyahu had expressed interest in building a single casino, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin proposed creating a large tourism complex containing two to four casinos on the grounds of the airport in Eilat, which is being dismantled.
Minister Levin opined that a casino would only help place Eilat as a leading tourist destination if it is accompanied by larger-scale development, including hotels, entertainment complexes, amusement parks, and dining and retail areas.
The Tourism Ministry conditioned construction of a casino on the creation of significant restrictions on Israeli citizens' gambling. It also seeks to form an efficient plan to enforce regulations, as well as a system to deal with the negative sides of gambling.
The ministry believes that building casinos without a larger tourist complex would mainly have an effect on local tourism and would hardly improve Eilat's standing as an international tourist destination. This model – creating a large tourist complex that includes a casino – has been proven effective in several locations, including Singapore, Macao, and the Philippines. In contrast, a study of European cities showed that tourism growth was much lower when only a single casino was built.
While Netanyahu initially suggested only permitting foreign citizens to gamble, government studies show that the advantages of a casino meant only for foreigners are dubious. This is because it is already possible to gamble online and because of the ease with which Israelis can enter gambling sites hosted abroad.
That said, there are many potential restrictions that could minimize criminal side effects, such as entry fees for Israeli citizens, limiting opening hours for Israelis, and placing a limit on jackpots.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians immediately expressed opposition, with Shas arguing that the casinos "will solely benefit tycoons and the wealthy" and do nothing but harm to the weaker segments of society.
MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said his party would oppose it because gambling "creates crime and negative phenomena and everyone knows it."
Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) also blasted the idea, saying a casino "contradicts the values of our state" and that it was impractical because taxpayers would end up paying to fix all the damage he said a casino would cause.