Key players in Swiss restitution reject plea for calm

WASHINGTON — An appeal by the Clinton administration's point man on Holocaust restitution issues for a period of "calm" and "reflection" in dealing with Switzerland is going largely unheeded by the key players trying to resolve Holocaust-era claims.

In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, Stuart Eizenstat reiterated a plea to U.S. public finance officers not to threaten Swiss banks with sanctions, saying that such steps would damage American financial markets, hurt U.S.-Swiss relations and further delay justice for Holocaust survivors.

"It is our feeling that we will get more by a non-confrontational approach at this point," said Eizenstat, the U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs.

"Swiss opinion has been so hardened by threats of sanctions and other allegations that flexibility to achieve a settlement will be further complicated," he said.

Eizenstat called on the lawyers representing Swiss banks and Holocaust survivors to return to the negotiating table to try to reach a settlement to Holocaust-era claims. Talks broke down last month after the banks said $600 million was their best offer, and Jewish groups rejected the offer as "insulting" and in "bad faith."

The appeal for restraint appeared to carry little weight with the Jewish leaders and elected officials who appeared before the committee.

Michael Hausfeld, one of the lead attorneys representing Holocaust survivors in a class-action lawsuit against Swiss banks, rejected Eizenstat's appeal. Discussing Eizenstat's repeated efforts to bring the two sides together, he said: "He's had three periods of calm. Under American baseball rules he's out."

Israel Singer, general-secretary of the World Jewish Congress, told the committee: "We are ashamed of the lies that have been used to scuttle the talks. These talks didn't break down by mistake. They were broken down by an absence of good faith, by an absence of fair play, by an absence of attempting to deal with the question of moral restitution."

Singer added that the Jewish side is ready to resume talks.

Several states, including California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, have already taken punitive measures against Swiss banks.

Wednesday's hearing was intended to re-examine a 1946 accord signed with Switzerland on the return of Nazi-looted gold. Switzerland agreed to return $58 million to the Allies despite records showing that it had accepted several times that amount. No decision was made on reopening the accord.