By Ernst E. Abegg Associated Press Writer ZURICH, Switzerland-Switzerland's three biggest commercial banks said today they are prepared to offer a maximum of $600 million in a global settlement of claims by Holocaust victims-a sum that angry Jewish groups called offensively low. The announcement by Credit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland marked the first time the banks have specified a figure for a possible settlement. The $600 million, they said, would include $70 million already paid into a fund to help needy Holocaust survivors. "By all legitimate criteria, this is a fair offer," the banks said in their joint statement. Jewish groups, which have estimated the banks still hold billions of dollars in dormant wartime accounts, were outraged. "The Swiss banks know that the amounts they are discussing are offensive, and if we were not dealing with such a tragic story, this would be laughable," Yoram Dori, an Israeli spokesman for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told The Associated Press in Jerusalem. The New York-based group tries to ensure that property and money lost or looted during World War II is returned to Jews. Edward Fagan, a lawyer for the claimants, said today in New York: "My 31,000 clients will not stand for this." "The problem is the banks' refusal to allow their sacrosanct, supposedly transparent process ... to be open to public scrutiny," he said. "This isn't about justice. This is about protecting the banks' bottom line and their cozy jobs at the expense of Holocaust victims."
Still, Fagan said he's prepared to negotiate.
Avraham Burg, co-chairman of the restitution organization, was less conciliatory: "What they are saying with this figure is actually they don't want to negotiate." "It was a very, very unnecessary statement which has thrown the process backwards," he told Associated Press Television. "We will say thank you but no thank you and go back to the public struggle."
The three Swiss banks urged the plaintiffs to accept the offer "so that money can immediately be distributed to Holocaust survivors and heirs of Holocaust victims." However, the statement warned that through repeated violations of a court-ordered confidentiality agreement, "the World Jewish Congress and the plaintiffs' lawyers are seriously jeopardizing the settlement negotiations." Fagan angrily denied the accusation. Credit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland are negotiating with Jewish organizations and lawyers for class-action claimants on a settlement. They met June 5 with lawyers for Holocaust survivors amid reports the banks would offer more than $1 billion to settle claims they stole assets from dormant wartime accounts. Fagan had said even $1 billion might not satisfy some claimants. Tens of thousands of Holocaust victims deposited money in Swiss banks when the Nazis were gaining power in Europe. Plaintiffs, however, say bank officials stonewalled survivors and their heirs after World War II, claiming they could not find accounts or demanding nonexistent death certificates before giving funds to relatives of those who died in concentration camps. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve approved a merger of the U.S. operations of the Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp. The new entity will be the second-largest bank in the world, with assets of $627 billion, behind Japan's Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. Regulators had held up approval because of complaints that the banks were dragging their feet on releasing the Holocaust records.