Israel mulls opening first casino, but is the fix in for Netanyahu’s buddy Adelson?

israel-casino-adelson-netanyahuIsrael’s government is considering plans to open the country’s first casino, although resistance is already coming from social conservatives.

Last week, Israel’s Channel 10 television reported that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (pictured left) had tasked two cabinet ministers with conducting feasibility studies on opening a casino in Eilat, a city on the Red Sea coast, with the idea of turning the region into a tourist hotspot.

There are two proposals currently being studied. The first plan envisions introducing casino gaming options in several existing Eilat hotels, particularly those chains that already operate casinos in other countries. The alternate plan would see a new large scale gaming venue developed on the site of Eilat’s airport, which is slated to be replaced by a new airport currently under construction.

On Friday, tourism minister Yariv Levin confirmed the reports, telling Israeli radio that he “fully” supports the concept of bringing casino gaming to Israel as a way of boosting tourism and giving Eilat an economic shot in the arm. Levin told TheMarket that Eilat’s current rate of tourism meant the new airport would be “pretty empty” without the added draw that a casino would bring.

However, Levin acknowledged that casinos had “very serious social potential” and that care would need to be taken to ensure the plans proceeded “with restrictions and supervision to prevent the casino from becoming an incubator for crime.”

Israel has flirted with the notion of casinos on multiple occasions. Legislation was introduced in the mid-1990s but failed to pass after meeting opposition from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson (pictured right) made another pitch for a casino in Eilat in 2003, promoting the idea of “replicating Las Vegas” with the added attraction of Eliat’s “beautiful beaches.”

Adelson is a close friend of Netanyau, and publishes a free daily newspaper in Israel that critics have likened to a mouthpiece for Netanyahu’s Likud party. Should Israel decide to install a new standalone casino in Eliat, international firms would likely be invited to submit bids. It will be interesting to see how many bids such a tender would attract, given the suspicion that the fix was in for Sands.