GAMBLING: Odds favor casinos in Israel

TEL AVIV — Should the Jewish state have its own gambling casino?

The odds are that it will.

But the mere question touches a nerve in this society, prompting heated debates about whether Israelis are too money-mad, too eager to ape the West, or whether they're just learning to live a little and pursue happiness like healthy, normal people.

Whatever the symbolic value of such discussions, several casinos may soon be on the horizon in Israel, according to Labor MK Avi Yehezkel, head of the Knesset's tourism subcommittee.

"The mayors of Tiberias [along the Sea of Galilee] and Nahariya [on the northern Mediterranean coast] told me they'd like to have casinos in their cities," says Yehezkel.

"There's also been talk about building one in Yerucham and Mitzpe Ramon," both economically depressed Negev towns.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan Knesset bill calls for establishing one or more government-sanctioned casinos. And illegal private casinos poised to take advantage of potential pro-betting laws are springing up as fast as police raid them and shut them down.

At the same time, religious Knesset forces are hoping to derail any attempt to bring gambling to the Jewish state.

Gambling "runs counter to Jewish law," insists Rabbi Avraham Ravitz of the Degel Hatorah (Flag of the Torah) Party. "According to halachah, a gambler cannot be a witness because he is irresponsible and unbalanced.

"The religious forces won't allow a casino," he continues. "We will use all our ability, within legal bounds, to stop it."

Since the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and especially since the recent peace treaty with Jordan, there's been an accelerated push for an Israeli casino.

The first candidate was Eilat, the resort city of 36,000 at the country's southern tip on the Red Sea; other remote tourist spots quickly jumped in. With borders opening, tourism booming and the dollar signs of peace in a lot of people's eyes, an Israeli casino sounds like a natural.

Some of the world's biggest hotel gambling moguls would like to build it.

Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Convention Center and that city's Sands Hotel, is negotiating to erect a $100-$150 million convention center in Eilat. The casino could come later.

Sol Kerzner, master builder of South Africa's Sun City, talks of putting up a casino in the southern Negev's Timna region.

And Donald Trump says he's interested in getting into Eilat.

So, in fact, are a couple of Israelis who own stakes in Hungarian and Turkish gambling houses.

Early in the year, Israel received an emissary from the gambling world's capital, Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones; the Tourism Ministry, which is campaigning for legalized gambling, invited her to describe the wonders casinos had done for her hometown.

Las Vegas, she says, has blossomed, thanks to the "gaming industry." Strict licensing practices have run the Mafia out of town; revenues from casinos have been plowed back into education, cultural institutions and police; the city's crime rate is down to a normal level for an American city of 1 million people.

Las Vegas, Jones contends, is America's "fastest-growing city, and that's because of the quality of life."

Meanwhile, Yossi Levy, head of the Israel police investigations division, says police do not object to a casino as long as they will have the authority to keep organized crime out and drugs, prostitution and street crime down.

Subcommittee members say that what's good for Las Vegas is good for Eilat, and feel the casino should be built.

About 70 percent of Israelis agree, says former Tourism Minister Uzi Baram.

Baram cites polls commissioned by the tourism industry showing Israelis are already big gamblers. Their newest summer vacation craze is Anatolia and the other Turkish casino resorts; more than 300,000 Israelis take cheap charter flights there each year.

Many others go to the casino in the Taba Hilton, just across the Egyptian border from Eilat. Still others play the tables in Greece, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and, of course, Las Vegas.

Tourism officials estimate that Israelis spend some $200 million annually on gambling vacations abroad. There are scores of illegal "floating casinos" operating in Israeli homes and storefronts. On the legal end, between 1-1/2 million and 2 million Israelis wager about $500 million a year on the weekly, state-run "Lotto" and "Totto" lotteries and sports pools, which award millions in shekels each week.

Recent polls also show that 58 percent of Israelis want legalized casinos while 31 percent are opposed.

At the same time, Israeli tourism officials say the Jewish state should get ready to fight for gambling profits with its Arab and Palestinian neighbors.

"Another casino is going to be built in Taba, and one will probably be built in Aqaba," across the Jordanian border from Eilat, says Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Orly Doron.

"And there's no reason for them not to be built in Jericho, Bethlehem or Gaza," she adds. "For the sake of Israel's tourism industry, we have to be prepared to meet that competitive threat."

But whatever happens in Taba and Aqaba, casinos are unlikely to debut in the West Bank and Gaza. Islamic militants have torched cinemas and video libraries in the territories; casino builders would probably prefer a more stable environment for their investment.

"I think gambling will not be accepted here," said Elias Freij, mayor of Bethlehem and tourism minister of the Palestinian Authority. "It is contrary to our nature and customs. We are a more conservative people…Yes, there certainly would be religious opposition."

So far it is Jewish religious opposition that stands as one of two main obstacles to a casino in Israel.

"I've spoken out against it at least five times in the Knesset," says Knesset member Ravitz. "If Israel builds a casino, we will be worse than Las Vegas, because we do everything to such extremes."

The other major protest comes from Eilat. During her visit to Israel, Jones made her case for a casino to an audience of about 200 Eilat residents. "Most of the people there were opposed," says city spokeswoman Michal Mayer Sa'ar.

Eilat already had a bad experience with small-time casinos. In 1989, a few foreign-owned casino boats began operating just beyond Israel's territorial waters, bringing players from shore by motorboat. After a few months, complaints about organized crime, drug dealing, prostitution and damage to families were so heavy that the boats were forced to shut down.

"Sure a lot of Israelis want a casino — as long as it's far away from their backyard," says attorney David Schor, head of the Committee Against Casinos, a small group of Eilat public activists.

In December 1994, the 17 members of the Eilat City Council aired their views on the subject. Twelve were "adamantly opposed" to a casino because of the danger of increased crime and gambling addiction; three were in favor because of the promise of huge economic development; and two were undecided, Sa'ar says.

Hearings on gambling in Israel, and on the casino question, were conducted in 1990-91 by a public committee appointed by the Finance Ministry. The committee report gave a half-hearted endorsement to building an Eilat casino, noting the dangers, but concluding that if Israelis were going to be able to lose their money anyway in Taba, why not let them lose it in Eilat?

The committee chairman, retired Tel Aviv District Court president Binyamin Cohen, says the conclusion was a compromise reached for the sake of consensus.

"If it had been up to me alone, I wouldn't have agreed to allowing a casino," he says. "They teach people to believe in miracles. These TV commercials you see all day that tell you it's good to bet on the lotteries — this is corrupting."

Adds the 81-year-old Cohen: "I was raised that you're supposed to profit from your work, not from the roulette wheel. But maybe my time is passed."