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Groups back NATO hopefuls

WASHINGTON, July 30 (JTA) — The American Jewish Committee has become the first major American organization to endorse a second round of NATO expansion. David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director, said Tuesday that the United States and the 18 other NATO countries should “seize the moment” and extend an invitation to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia during its November meeting in Prague. “These seven countries will demonstrate their commitment to democracy and the rule of law, peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of human rights,” Harris said at a press conference. Other Jewish organizations have been raising concerns about the level of anti-Semitism and Holocaust recognition in some of the aspirant countries, particularly Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. But Rabbi Mavin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is involved in efforts to find Nazi-era war criminals, said his group would not object to the countries’ inclusion in NATO. Harris said he believed the expansion would serve the national security interests of the United States and would bring greater stability to Central Europe. NATO expansion requires approval by all 19 current member states. It also must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate. The AJCommittee was one of the first nongovernmental organizations to endorse the first round of NATO expansion in 1997, when the former Eastern bloc countries of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were admitted to the Western defense alliance. Bruce Jackson, the president of the U.S. Committee on NATO — a watchdog organization that monitors Jewish affairs among NATO hopefuls — said Jewish and non-Jewish institutions have been holding discussions with the seven aspirant countries about the opening of Holocaust archives, communal property restitution and curriculum reform. He said the process of reform is not complete. “All of these countries now recognize that democratic reform is a continuous process,” Jackson said. In March, Jewish leaders said they remained unsatisfied with some of the aspirant countries’ efforts to return communal property and commemorate the Holocaust. During a convention of aspirant NATO countries in Bucharest, Romania, in March, leaders from the Jewish communities in several countries said that little had been accomplished on those issues, despite government interest. Among the concerns are Lithuania’s record on returning communal property and Estonia’s near omission of the Holocaust from its textbooks. Issues in Estonia heated up last week when the country’s Security Police Board denied the participation of a police battalion in the killing of Jews in Nowogrudok, Belarus, on Aug. 7, 1942. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel had asked the Security Police Board to investigate battalion members, citing a contrary opinion by the Estonia International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity. The center also has experienced some anti-Semitic response since it offered monetary rewards for information on Nazi-era war criminals two weeks ago. A member of the Lithuanian Parliament has suggested that the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel director, Efraim Zuroff, be banned from the country. A city council member in Taurage, Lithuania, burned an Israeli flag and drove through town playing Nazi military music to protest the reward program. Hier of the Wiesenthal Center said that if the countries are welcomed into NATO he will bring their track records on Holocaust issues to the organization’s attention, hoping NATO can influence them to change. “It’s true that those countries have a long way to go in setting the record straight in acknowledging the war criminals in their countries,” Hier said. “But that should not prevent them from being accepted into NATO.” Harris said the seven countries were receiving the AJCommittee’s endorsement because their progress on democracy and Jewish issues had been favorable and NATO membership would encourage future reform. “We understand that this is a definitive moment in the history for the countries involved,” Harris said. “We don’t want to see negotiations on outstanding issues done in a confrontational manner.” Three other countries being considered for NATO — Macedonia, Albania and Croatia — did not receive the AJCommittee’s endorsement, but Harris said those countries were not expected to receive the consensual support of member countries this year. AJCommittee is expected to reprise its effort from the 1997 NATO expansion, working with the Senate to garner the necessary votes and traveling extensively in Europe to lobby member countries.