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Swiss-jewish Negotiations on Settlement Near Collapse

Talks between Jewish and Swiss negotiators all but collapsed this week, leaving only the dimmest prospects of setting Holocaust- era claims anytime soon.

Daylong discussions at the U.S. State Department Tuesday failed to yield progress, with Swiss banks again saying their best offer was $600 million, and the World Jewish Congress and lawyers for Holocaust survivors again rejecting that amount as insulting.

“We are left with little hope for a settlement before July 1,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, referring to a date set by U.S. public finance officers to review the negotiations and possibly impose sanctions on Swiss banks.

“The negotiations by the banks are a sham,” a source familiar with the talks said, adding that no further meetings were scheduled.

The secretive talks, brokered during the last three months by Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs, soured recently amid detailed public disclosures about the negotiations.

The WJC last week slammed the banks — Union Bank of Switzerland, Swiss Bank Corp. and Credit Suisse — for going public with their $600 million offer despite confidentiality agreements signed by both sides. The package includes about $70 million the banks have already paid into a Swiss fund set up last year to benefit Holocaust survivors.

The banks, for their part, said they would reject “unfounded and excessive” demands and accused Jewish negotiators of jeopardizing the process by disclosing previous details.

With no amicable resolution in sight, the next phase in prodding the banks to return Holocaust victims’ assets is likely to involve punitive measures taken by elected officials.

The July 1 meeting of state and local finance officers, led by New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, could result in sanctions against the banks — a move the WJC has said it does not plan to oppose.

The finance officers agreed to a moratorium on sanctions in March, pending the outcome of settlement talks.

The Clinton administration has opposed sanctions against Swiss banks.

At the same time, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) said the Senate Banking Committee that he chairs plans to reopen a 50-year-old accord signed with Switzerland on the return of Nazi-looted gold. Switzerland agreed to return $58 million to the Allies in the 1946 Washington Accord despite records that showed Switzerland accepted about five times that amount in looted gold.

D’Amato and others have long threatened to reopen that accord if Swiss banks and the Swiss government did not prove to be forthcoming in returning stolen assets.

And in New York, a federal judge is still considering whether to hear a class- action lawsuit brought against the banks by Holocaust survivors.

In the absence of a settlement, lawyers representing Holocaust survivors have threatened to step up U.S. court action against the banks.

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