Negotiators Mum on Talks to Resolve Claims Against Swiss

Talks to resolve claims stemming from Swiss actions during World War II have opened — but no quick settlement is in sight.

The first round of talks, held in Washington under U.S. State Department auspices, comes on the heels of a pledge last month by Switzerland’s three largest banks to negotiate a settlement that could end three multibillion dollar class-action lawsuits and boycott threats by U.S. states and cities.

Representatives of Swiss Bank Corp., Union Bank of Switzerland and Credit Suisse, the World Jewish Congress and class-action lawyers met for more than six hours Monday in what some characterized as a positive sign.

But for now, neither side is talking. The U.S, undersecretary of state for economic affairs, Stuart Eizenstat, who arranged the meeting, issued a brief statement saying each of the parties signed an agreement to not comment publicly on the talks.

“This is a process that is complicated and will take some time,” said Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues.

Since reaching an agreement in principle last month to start negotiations, the two sides have been deeply divided over what assets should even be on the table.

Jewish officials want the banks to agree to a global settlement — a lump sum payment covering bank deposits, insurance policies, confiscated real estate, artworks and other looted assets, as well as compensation for slave labor.

The banks, however, say they are only willing to address those claims related to the banks themselves.

The other claims could be passed along to the Swiss government, which remains opposed to the idea of a global settlement and is not a direct party to the negotiations. A representative of the Swiss banks said, however, that the banks do not intend to discuss any liabilities of the Swiss government or the Swiss National Bank.

The banks, meanwhile, find themselves in a precarious position back home. Some Swiss observers are questioning whether the banks might be stabbing the rest of the country in the back by arranging their own settlement.

Jewish officials say it is not their concern how the Swiss decide to reconcile that issue.

“It makes no difference whether the check comes from Union Bank of Switzerland or the Swiss National Bank,” one source close to the negotiations said.

As for the amount of the check, Jewish officials have declined to specify what they want, though some sources have said an appropriate settlement could range between $1 billion and $3 billion.

The negotiators are expected to reconvene next week.

In a related development this week, the State Department postponed until later this month the release of a new report about gold transactions between Nazi Germany and wartime neutrals.

A follow-up to a report released last year that focused largely on Switzerland’s wartime financial dealings, the report is intended in part to deflect criticism of Switzerland onto other neutral countries that traded in Nazi loot.

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