Israel could have legal gambling in 18 months, tourism chief says

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JERUSALEM — Israel's first legal casino could be operating within a year and a half, Tourism Minister Uzi Baram said recently.

His comments came in the wake of a recent crackdown by police on illegal gambling houses.

A special committee headed by Moshe Gavish of the Discount Mercantile Bank is scheduled to prepare legislation on the legalization of gambling. The committee also is to determine where the casinos would be set up and who would run them.

The issue has sparked heated debate in the past, but is being viewed differently as a result of the developing peace economy.

Israeli tourism industry officials said they are concerned that the public would shy away from Israeli resorts if a gambling ban continued.

Another Cabinet minister in favor of legalizing gambling is Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein.

He argued that if people are going to gamble, they might as well do it under proper supervision.

"There is no use in proscribing behavior which is quite common in Israel, within Israeli casinos and abroad," he told Israel Radio. "It is futile to combat this through prohibition."

He said the casinos would likely be established in a limited area, probably the Red Sea resort town of Eilat.

However, the head of the anti-casino lobby in Eilat, Uzi Avneri, told Israel Radio that legalized gambling would have detrimental effects on the local tourism industry.

Avneri said legalized gambling would raise crime rates in the city.

A public opinion poll for the Tourism Ministry found that 60 percent of those surveyed supported legalizing casinos.

The manager of the casino in Taba, Egypt, just over the Israeli border, told Israel Radio that 500 to 600 Israelis visit each week.