Swiss banks set to begin payout of dormant accounts

The announcement this week by a Swiss official comes just weeks ahead of a conference that will examine the ways American public institutions should deal with Swiss banks.

"I'm quite optimistic" accounts will soon be turned over "because if you were a Swiss banker, you would try to get some payments out before" the conference, said Special Ambassador Thomas Borer.

Borer, who heads a Swiss government task force set up last year to deal with the controversy surrounding Switzerland's wartime past, spoke with reporters Tuesday at the Swiss Embassy in Washington.

The conference, initiated by New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who lost family members in the Holocaust, is slated for Dec. 8 in New York.

Three states — California, New York and Massachusetts — and New York City have halted dealings with Swiss banks, while other states are considering such a move.

Borer called the sanctions against Swiss banks "counterproductive and unfair," a position also taken by the Clinton administration.

Last month, the Swiss Bankers Association released the second of two lists of dormant accounts. The lists contain the names of about 16,000 people whose accounts have not been touched since World War II. Of those, about 5,500 were opened by foreigners.

At least 30,000 people have inquired about the lists so far, and more than 3,000 claims have been filed.

Borer said the Swiss Bankers Association is aiming to complete the process of returning assets by December 1998.

He also sought to clarify what he said was a misunderstanding about the scope of a proposed Swiss Foundation for Solidarity, which would use investment income from $5 billion in reserves for humanitarian causes.

Swiss President Arnold Koller proposed establishing such a fund last spring as part of an effort to deflect international criticism of Switzerland's wartime dealings with the Nazis. Koller said at the time that the fund would help support needy Holocaust survivors.

Some Jewish and Israeli officials leveled sharp criticism at Switzerland after the Swiss government decided recently not to use the fund to help individual survivors.

The foundation proposal faces a national referendum next year, and some Swiss officials have said it may not win public approval if Jewish survivors are among the beneficiaries.

Mounting pressure on Switzerland in the past year has resulted in an anti-Semitic backlash among the Swiss.

While individual Holocaust survivors will not directly benefit from the fund, Borer said the Swiss government may decide to use the foundation to aid groups or projects that help survivors.

"My government is still of the position that, among others, Holocaust survivors may profit" from the fund "if there is still a need.

"We have to be careful not to put that in the forefront. We are walking on thin ice," he said, "and a negative reaction with regard to public opinion could affect" the creation of the foundation.