Foreign Ministry Angered by Modai’s Comments on Waldheim

The Foreign Ministry, which has been quietly campaigning in Europe to thwart the election of Kurt Waldheim as President of Austria, is furious with Justice Minister Yitzhak Modai for stating this week that Israel does not have sufficient evidence to support charges that Waldheim committed war crimes while a Wehrmacht officer serving in the Balkans during World War II.

Modai defended his statement Thursday. He said it represented an “accurate picture” based on the information Israel has been able to obtain. He said the evidence showed that Waldheim, as an intelligence officer who briefed the General Staff, aided others in the commission of atrocities but was insufficient to implicate him personally.

Such evidence, if it exists, is to be found in other countries and Israel has not been given access to it, Modai said. He was apparently referring to Greece and Yugoslavia. Sources at the Foreign Ministry insisted Thursday that there is sufficient prima facie evidence against Waldheim to bring war crimes charges against him.

WITNESSES’ TESTIMONY ‘NOT STRONG ENOUGH’

The Justice Minister disclosed that two Holocaust survivors living in Israel testified to Ministry officials that they had seen Waldheim himself commit atrocities. But their testimony was “not strong enough,” Modai said. He said that Israel and the United States are continuing to exchange information on Waldheim who served two terms as Secretary General of the United Nations, from 1972-1981.

Modai’s statements have been welcomed by Waldheim’s campaign staff in Vienna. Along with a similar statement this week by the Greek Minister of Justice, they absolve him of all charges, his staffers say.

Waldheim, the candidate of the conservative People’s Party, faces a run-off election this Sunday against his Socialist opponent, Kurt Steyrer. He has a comfortable lead in public opinion polls in Austria.

The Foreign Ministry has been engaged in low-key diplomatic efforts in recent weeks to convince key European opinion-makers of the inadvisability of Waldheim becoming President of Austria, even though the office is largely ceremonial. A senior Israeli diplomat, Dov Shmorak, was sent to various European capitals to meet with intellectuals and government figures on this issue.

Ministry sources acknowledged that Israel has not been able to persuade several Eastern European governments to cooperate in the search for evidence against Waldheim. They believe that Modai’s remarks were unnecessary, untimely and prejudicial to their efforts.

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