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Swiss president lashes out, provoking a harsh response

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (JTA) — The World Jewish Congress is accusing the president of Switzerland of showing “shocking insensitivity” to the concerns of the Jewish people. The charge came after President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz leveled a stinging New Year’s Eve attack at his nation’s foreign critics. Delamuraz, whose term was to end this week, dismissed as “blackmail” calls for his nation to set up a $250 million fund to begin compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs who might be entitled to money deposited in Swiss banks in the World War II era. “If we agreed now to a compensation fund, this would be taken as an admission of guilt,” Delamuraz told the Tribune de Geneve newspaper. “This is nothing less than extortion and blackmail,” he added. “This fund would make it much more difficult to establish the truth.” Instead, the Swiss government will wait until its newly appointed historical commission determines whether Switzerland misappropriated Jewish assets, Delamuraz said. Switzerland has been at the center of an international furor over its wartime dealings with Nazi Germany and the fate of Jewish assets. The WJC has suggested that Switzerland set up a preliminary fund as “a good faith financial gesture.” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) echoed the call at a congressional hearing in December. Jewish and Swiss officials have been discussing creation of such a fund during the past month, and negotiations have centered around a $250 million figure, a source familiar with the discussions said. At this point, there is “an understanding” between Swiss and Jewish officials surrounding a compensation fund, the source said, adding that the next few weeks will show “whether the Swiss are serious about it or not.” The WJC, for its part, said it would attempt to look beyond the Swiss president’s remarks and continue its struggle to win restitution. “President Delamuraz’s reported comments represent an assault and challenge to the very soul of Switzerland,” said Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the WJC. “I do not believe the Swiss people will allow this blackening of the reputation of their country. “He has shown shocking insensitivity to the moral concerns of the Jewish people as well as others who feel deeply the tragedy of the Holocaust and those terrible years.” Delamuraz, who has occupied the largely ceremonial post of president for the past year under the Swiss rotating system, was due to step down Jan. 1. In some of the harshest language yet used by Swiss officials, Delamuraz also accused foreign critics of trying to undermine Switzerland’s role as a world financial center. “Economic competition is fierce and this affair proves it,” he said of the ongoing investigations into Switzerland’s wartime dealings with Nazi Germany.