WASHINGTON (Feb. 2)
Swiss banks have responded to a threatened boycott by New York politicians with assurances that Switzerland already is working fast to set up a fund for Holocaust victims.
The New York state Assembly and City of New York threatened last week to pull the rug out from under three Swiss banks operating in Manhattan if Switzerland does not make good on its promise to set up the fund.
The Swiss government announced last month that it would work with Swiss banks and insurance companies to establish a fund to begin compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs who might be entitled to assets deposited in Swiss banks during the World War II era.
The Swiss, however, have yet to provide specifics on the fund, and sources close to the issue say several pressing issues are unresolved.
Jewish officials have indicated that they will not wait long for Switzerland to turn its words into deeds, and the move by New York politicians adds another pressure point.
Swiss banking officials reportedly said that they are taking the boycott threat seriously, but expressed bewilderment at the timing of the New York proposals.
“This is hard to understand if you look exactly at what has been done already,” Swiss Bankers Association spokeswoman Silvia Matile was quoted as saying.
“I don’t believe it was necessary to create extra pressure because the pace is already very fast,” she added. “The concept for the fund will be worked out in the coming weeks.”
New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the Assembly’s Banking Committee would hold hearings Feb. 13 to examine ways to help Holocaust victims and their heirs reclaim their wealth.
In a statement, Silver said the committee would also review New York state’s relationship with Swiss banks and examine how a foreign bank’s license or certification can be revoked.
“Swiss bankers must provide a full and honest accounting concerning these unclaimed funds and return these assets to their rightful owners,” Silver said.
“Our obligation clearly extends to ensuring that all banking institutions operate in New York according to the highest ethical standards.”
At the same time, the president of the New York City Council introduced a bill to prevent city funds from being deposited in Swiss banks until the compensation fund is established.
The actions mark the first time state and local governments have entered into the controversy surrounding the search for missing Jewish assets.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, welcomed the New York proposals as further help in “advancing the cause of justice and morality.”
The Clinton administration, however, criticized the proposed moves.
“At this point, it is important that we cooperate and not front each other with threats that will lead to a retarding of the very real progress that we have made,” said Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, the administration’s point man on the issue of missing Jewish assets and Switzerland’s wartime role.
At least one Jewish group also said it believed that the threatened boycott is “premature.”
“This comes at the very time when more hopeful signs are emerging from the Swiss banking community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League. But he added that such measures could become necessary if the Swiss fail to take action.
Eizenstat also toned down U.S. criticism of a Swiss diplomatic cable that led to the resignation of Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States.
He said the private strategy paper, which called for a “war” against Switzerland’s critics, did contain some “very strong, unfortunate wording.”
But he said a study of the full document found no signs of anti-Semitism.
Carlo Jagmetti resigned as Swiss ambassador last week after the document he authored was leaked to the press.
At a news conference in Washington, Jagmetti released the full text of the secret cable and said it was meant to “energize” Swiss decision-makers to advance the search for missing Jewish assets “as quickly as possible.”
He acknowledged that some of his expressions were harsh, but said, “My words were and are a call for the Swiss to get our act together.”
In Switzerland, meanwhile, President Arnold Koller and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they would make every effort to calm Swiss- Jewish relations.
“We’re serious when we say we want the full truth also about the troubling time of our history,” Koller told reporters after meeting with Netanyahu, who was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
During a visit to Geneva, meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also sounded off on the controversy enveloping Switzerland. He called the matter a “public relations disaster” and urged an equitable settlement.
“It’s unfortunate it has dragged on for so long,” Annan said at a news conference. “I hope the issue will be resolved quickly and appropriately and equitably to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.”
Annan’s sentiment was echoed in Switzerland by several hundred leading Swiss professionals, who issued a statement decrying the way the country has handled the controversy.
Lawyers, artists, teachers, doctors and journalists all joined in signing a petition that called the behavior of the government and banks “an insult not only to the Jewish people but to all the democratically minded inhabitants of our country.”
“We consider it all the more imperative that recent Swiss history be further freed of distortion and embellishment, and be rewritten with greater honesty and truth,” the petition said.