WASHINGTON (Jul. 22)
An appeal by the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues for a period of “calm” and “reflection” in dealing with Switzerland is going largely unheeded by the key players trying to resolve Holocaust-era claims.
In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, Stuart Eizenstat reiterated a plea to U.S. public finance officers not to threaten Swiss banks with sanctions, saying that such steps would damage American financial markets, hurt U.S.-Swiss relations and further delay justice for Holocaust survivors.
“It is our feeling that we will get more by a non-confrontational approach at this point,” said Eizenstat, the U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs.
“Swiss opinion has been so hardened by threats of sanctions and other allegations that flexibility to achieve a settlement will be further complicated” by punitive measures, he said.
Eizenstat called on the lawyers representing Swiss banks and Holocaust survivors to return to the negotiating table to try to reach a settlement to Holocaust-era claims. Talks broke down last month after the banks said $600 million was their best offer, and Jewish groups rejected the offer as “insulting” and in “bad faith.”
The appeal for restraint appeared to carry little weight with the Jewish leaders and elected officials who appeared before the committee.
Michael Hausfeld, one of the lead attorneys representing Holocaust survivors in a class-action lawsuit against Swiss banks, rejected Eizenstat’s appeal, saying of the administration official’s repeated efforts to bring the two sides together: “He’s had three periods of calm. Under American baseball rules he’s out.”
Israel Singer, general-secretary of the World Jewish Congress, struck a fiery tone when he told the committee: “We are ashamed of the lies that have been used to scuttle the talks. These talks didn’t break down by mistake. They were broken down by an absence of good faith, by an absence of fair play, by an absence of attempting to deal with the question of moral restitution.”
He said the banks made a settlement impossible “when they took the money and threw it on the table and told us, `Take your money and go, all you people want is money and more money.'”
“The issue is not one of money, but moral restitution,” Singer said, adding that the Jewish side is ready to return to the negotiating table.
New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall told the committee he “respectfully” disagreed with the State Department’s opposition to sanctions, saying Holocaust survivors “are exhausted, their patience is spent and they are rapidly running out of time.”
“Sanctions are extreme actions,” he said. “I do not want to impose them. But I will do so if a settlement is not quickly reached, knowing we are on the right side of the moral plumb line.”
Several states, including California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, have already taken punitive measures against Swiss banks, but New York state and New York City have set a deadline of Sept. 1 for implementing a gradual series of sanctions if a settlement is not reached by that date.
Wednesday’s wide-ranging hearing was intended to re-examine a 1946 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 which showed that Switzerland had accepted several times that amount.
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate committee, threatened to reopen that accord in light of the standstill in settlement talks. He said Switzerland must be brought back to the table and held accountable for its “deceitful conduct and apparent fraud.”
No decision was made about reopening that agreement.
Switzerland did not send an official government representative to the hearing, saying that the government has already testified before Congress on several occasions and that the country had already taken sufficient steps to address its wartime past.
But a member of the Swiss Parliament, Jean Ziegler, delivered testimony that was critical of recent Swiss actions.
In addition, Fredy Rom, the Swiss correspondent for JTA, offered the committee insight about the current atmosphere in Switzerland, citing a rise in anti- Semitic letters and threats against Swiss Jews.
Meanwhile, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States, Alfred Defago, delivered a letter to President Clinton on Wednesday urging him to block sanctions against Swiss banks.
D’Amato said that Switzerland’s absence at the hearing signaled that the country’s history of stonewalling “is repeating itself.”