BERN, Sept. 23 (JTA) – Angry at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Swiss officials may cancel an economic conference aimed at improving bilateral business ties. Their anger was sparked by a letter the premier recently wrote to Edgar Bronfman in which he thanked the president of the World Jewish Congress for his efforts to get Swiss banks to pay Holocaust-era claims. The WJC campaign culminated last month with the announcement that Switzerland’s two largest private banks would pay $1.25 billion to settle survivors’ claims that the banks withheld dormant accounts from their rightful owners and profited from wartime trade in looted Nazi gold. “You have proved moral leadership in a long and tough struggle against those who profited from the unspeakable suffering of millions of Jews,” Netanyahu wrote. “You have done this with great pride, dignity, skill and aplomb.” The letter, which was leaked to the Swiss daily newspaper Blick, prompted the Swiss government to re-evaluate whether the Nov. 25 conference will take place. Netanyahu and Swiss President Flavio Cotti were originally scheduled to open the conference. “The government will have to decide if the conference and Netanyahu’s visit to Switzerland can take place,” a spokeswoman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry said. Swiss officials feel betrayed by Netanyahu, who had distanced himself from Bronfman’s efforts when Cotti visited Israel in May. Israeli officials are now engaged in damage control. Last Friday, the director general of Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eitan Ben-Tsur, telephoned the Swiss ambassador to Israel, Pierre Monod, to explain that the letter was not meant to insult Switzerland. But the Swiss government, which discussed the issue at its weekly Cabinet session Monday, is seeking more explanations about the letter so that “relations can return to business as usual,” according to Cabinet Secretary Achille Casanova. On Wednesday, the Swiss government ordered a high Defense Ministry official to cancel a trip to Israel scheduled for Sunday. Israel’s normally good relations with Switzerland suffered earlier this year, when Swiss police arrested a Mossad spy during a botched eavesdropping mission in Bern. Israel subsequently apologized for the incident.
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