News Analysis: Swiss likely to ignore latest deadline for restitution

WASHINGTON — For Switzerland, it's another day, another deadline.

The latest D-Day is Sept. 1 — the date finance officers of New York City and New York state have promised to begin a series of sanctions against Swiss banks unless they agree to a settlement with Jewish groups.

Such threats are nothing new to Switzerland or its three primary banks, Credit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and the Union Bank of Switzerland.

Indeed, during the course of the past year, critics of Switzerland have set deadline after deadline in hopes of pressuring the country and its banks into resolving Holocaust-era claims.

The most recent deadline passed in early July, when public finance officials from across the nation met in New York to assess Switzerland's progress on the issue.

Reacting to a breakdown in Jewish-Swiss talks, the officials lifted their self-imposed moratorium on sanctions, and several states — including California — took immediate action.

Now, a month later, the deadlock in talks continues, sanctions remain in effect, and both sides are looking for a way out of the morass.

To that end, both sides have appealed to President Clinton to intervene ahead of the Sept. 1 deadline. The administration has already condemned the sanctions, but it remains unclear whether Washington can or will go any further.

Swiss banks have said $600 million is their best offer for settling bank-related claims. The World Jewish Congress and lawyers for Holocaust survivors are holding out for a $1.5 billion "global settlement" that would cover all claims against the commercial banks, the Swiss central bank and the Swiss government.

In response to the most recent sanctions, Swiss political and business leaders have appealed to the White House.

Last month, Swiss President Flavio Cotti sent a letter to Clinton urging him to block sanctions against Swiss banks. The Swiss government also wrote to leaders of all 50 U.S. states and 15 major cities urging them to back off from threatened sanctions, warning that it would be a "major mistake" to harm close economic ties between the two countries that include nearly half a million jobs in the United States created by Swiss companies.

Shortly thereafter, a Swiss business group took out advertisements in several major U.S. newspapers urging Clinton to put an end to the threats of sanctions.

New York state's comptroller and New York City's comptroller, not to be outdone, then sent their own letter to Clinton urging him to ask the Swiss government to negotiate the restitution of funds taken from Holocaust victims.

"We hope that you will respond by urging President Cotti to direct the Swiss government and Swiss National Bank to join the Swiss commercial banks in negotiating an agreement so that there is finally justice and restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs," the letter said.

The Swiss government and the Swiss National Bank have refused to join the commercial banks in the negotiations and have said they would not be a part of any settlement.

The New York finance officials also defended the possible punitive measures.

"Economic sanctions helped to bring about social justice in South Africa," they wrote, referring to state and local efforts to end apartheid during the 1980s, which the federal government opposed. "They can do so in Switzerland as well."

Clinton has yet to respond to either letter, and sources say it is unlikely that he will go further than the public statements already made by Stuart Eizenstat, his point man on Holocaust restitution issues.

Eizenstat, the undersecretary of state for economic affairs, has repeatedly criticized the sanctions, saying they will only lead to a hardening of the Swiss position and complicate efforts to reach a settlement.

But he has not suggested that the administration would or could do anything to intervene beyond the concern it has already expressed through various channels. In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee last month, Eizenstat appealed to both sides for a period of "calm" and "reflection," while urging both sides to return to the negotiating table.

That leaves Swiss banks and Jewish groups running up against another deadline with slim prospects of achieving progress or averting additional sanctions.

For now, it appears to be a gamble the Swiss banks are willing to take.

Some observers say Swiss government and banking officials are intent on waiting out the current push for sanctions until after the November midterm elections in the United States, with the hope that the posturing and pressure against Switzerland will lighten up.

One of the lawyers representing Holocaust survivors, however, called that strategy a "miscalculation" that could backfire.

Michael Hausfeld, a Washington attorney, said that if the Sept. 1 deadline comes and goes without progress, Jewish negotiators may consider setting their sights on a higher figure than the $1.5 billion settlement proposal.

Meanwhile, frustration is continuing to grow among the Holocaust survivors awaiting compensation. Hausfeld said the survivors he is representing are considering staging protests in coming weeks outside some of the offices of the U.S. subsidiaries of Swiss banks.

At the same time, some positive movement has occurred on other fronts. Both Swiss and Jewish negotiators met twice last week with a federal judge in New York who is considering whether to hear a multibillion class-action lawsuit against the banks.

The meetings failed to yield immediate progress, but Judge Edward Korman is expected to convene follow-up discussions.

In another move, the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to consider an amendment this week that aims to prevent the federal government from filing lawsuits to block the state and local sanctions against Swiss banks.

The measure comes in anticipation of a possible ruling by the World Trade Organization that such sanctions are illegal. As a member of the WTO, the United States would be obligated to compel states and cities to abide by the organization's ruling, possibly through lawsuits.

There is no indication that the administration is considering any such action.