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BEHIND THE HEADLINES New German slave-labor negotiator raises hopes for a quick end to talks

BERLIN, July 25 (JTA) — The naming of a new German government representative to participate in talks aimed at compensating Nazi-era slave laborers has created hopes for speedy conclusion of those negotiations. And given the sensitive nature of the talks — which bring together 16 of Germany’s leading industrial firms and representatives of Holocaust survivors under the auspices of the United States and Germany — the virtually unanimous acclaim that greeted last Friday’s appointment of Otto Graf Lambsdorff as the country’s new chief negotiator is something of a wonder. Joining those who praised the appointment, Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, described Lambsdorff, a former economics minister, as a competent and trusted figure. His appointment proves that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is “serious” about bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion, Bubis added. The former lead negotiator, Bodo Hombach, recently resigned to run the European Union’s reconstruction efforts in the Balkans. Lambsdorff, 72, is honorary president of the liberal Free Democratic Party, which is not part of the Schroeder administration. The fact that Lambsdorff comes to the job from outside the Schroeder government gives him the appearance of independence, observers say. And independence will prove a plus in the sensitive talks, in which Germany’s industry giants will likely pay hundreds of millions of dollars apiece to make restitution for the wrongs of a previous generation. They hope the book on reparations will be closed by the end of the century. Some 12 million people — mostly from occupied lands — worked as slave or forced laborers in various German industries during World War II. Tens of thousands are still living today. In recent days, Jewish leaders had charged the German government with dragging its feet in the talks, saying Schroeder had thrown a wrench into the negotiations when he removed Hombach from the talks. The two sides have been racing to achieve a settlement by a symbolically important Sept. 1 deadline, which marks the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II. In June, the German industrial firms offered a settlement of $1.7 billion, but that sum was rejected by Jewish groups. A lawyer who has worked in banking and insurance, Lambsdorff was minister of economics for seven years under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He left the administration under a cloud in 1984, and was convicted in 1987 of taking campaign donations to help a major German firm avoid paying nearly $900,000 in taxes. Although observers said at the time Lambsdorff’s political career might be over, he remained a member of Parliament until last year, when he chose not to run again. Despite this brush with white-collar crime, Lambsdorff is known here as a straightforward and fair mediator. “He is a man who says what be believes,” said Michel Friedman, deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “I think he is not a friend to industry, though he is certainly very connected. But I am sure he knows that his duty is not to represent the industry.” Lambsdorff’s appointment ends a period during which several names were floated as replacements for Hombach, who had served as Schroeder’s chief of staff. Though he received praise from participants in the slave-labor negotiations, Hombach was criticized by some as too busy to devote his full attention to the talks. The politically tough role was turned down by his successor as Schroeder’s chief of staff, Frank Walter Steinmeier, and by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Finance Minister Hans Eichel. Government legal adviser Gerd Westdickenberg filled in temporarily. As late as last week, observers thought Hombach’s permanent replacement would be Dieter Kastrup, Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations. The appointment of Lambsdorff, a man known for his no-nonsense style, has created hopes that he will help untangle issues that have held up the talks — including an industry demand for protection from all future lawsuits related to slave laborers. The firms are demanding such protection as a condition for setting up the compensation fund. The various sides are planning to meet this week in Washington to hammer out several issues, including this call for protection from future lawsuits, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, who also expressed optimism about Lambsdorff’s appointment. The talks coincide with separate negotiations that have an international commission working with European insurers to resolve claims that the firms blocked payments on policies taken out during the war years. Many policies were not honored after the war because beneficiaries rarely had documents proving that the policy holders — victims of the Holocaust — had died. Following talks last week in Washington, the panel’s chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, said the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims would also soon resolve the thorny issue of how much those claims are now worth. Some analysts put the total at between $1 billion and $4 billion. The commission expects to begin handling claims by the end of October. Eagleburger is reported to have recently contacted several insurers, telling them that they should either join the negotiations or face potential lawsuits from the beneficiaries of Holocaust victims. Four companies have reportedly asked to join the commission. One German insurer — Gerling — has reportedly expressed interest in joining either the insurance or the slave labor talks. Germany’s leading insurer, Allianz, is involved in both the slave-labor and insurance negotiations. The growing number of firms considering joining the settlement suggests there are more firms out there who fear — or know — they may have a tainted past.