NEW YORK, July 6 (JTA) — Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined the fray in the battle over the multimillion-dollar Swiss banks Holocaust settlement. Netanyahu, in a June 30 letter to Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the umbrella organization of Holocaust reparations groups, said he supports a proposal to form a commission to centralize restitution efforts globally. “I appreciate and agree with your proposal to establish a blue-ribbon panel to examine how to increase efficiency, transparency, relevance and coordinate in restitution efforts,” Netanyahu wrote. His letter comes in the wake of initial calls for such a panel by Israel Singer, president of the Claims Conference, which distributes reparations and is one of the World Jewish Restitution Organization’s leading constituent members. While it does not mention the Swiss case, Netanyahu’s letter and calls for a central restitution panel come in the wake of heated competition over some $650 million remaining in the Swiss banks case by scores of Jewish organizations worldwide. Judah Gribetz, an adviser to the U.S. court overseeing the landmark 1998 class-action settlement, has proposed that 75 percent of the remaining money be spent on the world’s poorest Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union. Many groups have fought that plan, contending that it ignores the pressing needs of poor Holocaust survivors in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Bobby Brown, director of international affairs for the World Jewish Congress and a former Netanyahu adviser, said the Gribetz proposal, submitted to U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman of the Eastern District of New York, departed from longtime efforts to achieve “balance” in compensation among survivors worldwide. “The recommendation by Gribetz to Korman creates a very, very different balance,” Brown said. Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a Claims Conference board member, called the Netanyahu letter “an important step in solidifying Jewish unity” around restitution issues. “It is not only long overdue, but a signal to the outside world that Jews are united and determined to remain united on this question,” Steinberg said. This was not the first time Israeli officials weighed in on the case. Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, famous as a onetime Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, has urged that more funds go to Israel. It was only early last month that two senior Claims Conference officials urged Gribetz to find a “more equitable” solution in the Swiss banks case, marking the first time members of that group took a public position in the case. That letter, by Roman Kent, the Claims Conference treasurer, and Moshe Sanbar, chairman of the executive board, came some two months after groups from around the world converged on Korman’s Brooklyn courtroom to appeal for funding remaining from the settlement. So far in the $1.25 billion Swiss case, about $155 million, an average of $170,000 per award, has gone to survivors or the heirs of assets deposited in Switzerland before the Holocaust, which the supposedly neutral banks then froze in the postwar years. Up to $593 million also has been earmarked for that group or others affected, including Swiss refugees and slave laborers. But legal disputes and bureaucratic wrangling has held up much of that disbursement. Only in the past few weeks did the Swiss banks agree to publish online the names of thousands of additional potential recipients as well as consider appeals by thousands of others whose claims are based on partial documentation. Among the largest proposals to Korman for the remaining funds came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, which oversees the funding of social services for poor Jews in the former Soviet Union. Some critics of the Korman plan say the Netanyahu letter provides new ammunition against putting much of the remaining money in the JDC’s hands. “To the best of my knowledge, the only group that feels it’s a correct balance is the JDC,” Brown said. But JDC officials say the plan in fact redresses an imbalance. Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the JDC, said that of the $2.9 billion distributed to Nazi victims worldwide between 2001 and 2003, only 4.5 percent — about $130 million — went to Jews in the former Soviet Union. If the proposed committee urges a new Swiss plan, Schwager added, it should consider that the “poorest and neediest” of survivors worldwide remain in the former Soviet Union, where social services remain scanty. “A new initiative to equalize services to all needy Nazi victims worldwide can only mean that victims in the FSU ought to receive upgraded help and services on a higher level than that they receive today,” Schwager told JTA. Not only do groups differ over which survivors remain neediest, but they debate demographics as well, with estimates of survivor population figures varying widely. According to various recent surveys, their numbers globally range from 687,900 to 1.92 million, with between 39 and 47 percent in Israel; between 13 and 23 percent in the former Soviet Union; 15 to 17 percent in the United States; 17 to 21 percent in Europe and 2 to 5 percent elsewhere. “At what point will Israel have a say — when we have 80 percent of the survivors?” Brown said. The creation of a new commission overseeing Holocaust assets could avoid potential “duplication” between groups such as the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, he added. Claims officials said their board will discuss the blue-ribbon panel during its annual meeting in New York on July 21-22. Meanwhile, another restitution battle brewing in Israel could unleash a similar fight over funds. A Knesset committee is considering a proposal by Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, head of the Shinui Party and a Holocaust survivor himself, to create a non-profit entity that would decide the fate of unclaimed Israeli assets, either bank holdings or real estate, once owned by Holocaust victims.
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