Clinton is backing effort to trace the origin of Swiss bank accounts

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NEW YORK — President Clinton expressed his support last week for efforts to have Holocaust-era Jewish bank accounts in Switzerland returned to their rightful owners or heirs.

The president made the statement the same day as Swiss banking officials and Jewish leaders penned a historic agreement in New York to create a committee to oversee the "unfettered" search for the World War II bank accounts of Holocaust victims.

"Our most recent conversation with regard to the return of Jewish assets in Swiss banks enjoys the support of this administration, as I outlined to you during our conversation last week at the White House," Clinton wrote in a May 2 letter to Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and one of the agreement's signatories.

Clinton also wrote of the restitution efforts, "It is a moral issue and a question of justice, and I hope you will keep me informed of your progress."

The aim of the understanding reached May 2 is to determine the whereabouts of money deposited in Switzerland by Jews during the World War II era. A related goal of the agreement is to uncover looted Jewish assets that were deposited into Nazi accounts.

Jewish Agency for Israel chair Avraham Burg called the agreement "a breakthrough" and "a historic event."

The agreement will allow access for the first time to "the mirrored halls" of Holocaust victims' bank deposits, said Burg, who came to New York for the signing of the agreement.

The road that led to last week's agreement was sometimes bumpy, particularly when the Swiss Bankers Association said in February it had found 774 dormant accounts worth $32 million, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

Jewish organizations have claimed that the figure could be as high as several billion dollars.

The World Jewish Congress didn't accept the "unilateral findings" because the process used to determine the numbers was not a "transparent" one, Steinberg said, adding that the Swiss move had been a "complete breach of understanding."

But the Swiss bankers agreed to "change their position" after hearings this month on the issue before a Senate committee, he said.

This latest campaign to recover the "missing" Jewish assets began in September.

The independent commission established as a result of the agreement is made up of six people, three of whom represent the Jewish community and three who represent the Swiss Bankers Association. In addition, each side will have two alternate members.

In addition to Burg, the Jewish representatives are Shevach Weiss, speaker of the Knesset, and Ruben Beraja, of the Latin American Jewish Congress and an Argentine Jewish leader.

The group will choose a chairman and oversee independent auditors.

Swiss insurance companies and transfer agencies also will be searched for Jewish assets, said Steinberg, who called the new understanding an "excellent first step."