The Claims Conference will run out of money to distribute to organizations that help needy Holocaust survivors in another six years, if it continues disbursing funds at the current rate, a Claims Conference official told a parliamentary committee of inquiry yesterday.

The organization, formally known as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also supports Holocaust commemoration programs. According to Reuven Merhav, who chairs the organization's executive committee, it is currently spending about $100 million a year on these two goals. However, he said, its principal source of income is the sale of Jewish property in former East Germany for which no heirs have been located, and the conference estimates the remaining income from this source at no more than $300 million.

The Claims Conference was established in 1951 by the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewish organizations to handle the issue of Holocaust reparations from Germany. Over the years, Germany and other countries have paid about $100 billion in reparations - most directly to the victims, but some to the conference and its various foundations.

Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan demanded that an external auditor be appointed to examine the organization's finances.

Such an auditor, he said, should examine the conference's "management, its decision-making methods, its policy and its planning for the future. I proposed this several times, but always met with absolute rejection."

Merhav responded: "The Claims Conference has nothing to hide."

Eitan also criticized the fact that the organization's board of directors includes representatives of 48 international Jewish organizations - some of which are virtually defunct - but only four Israeli representatives. This structure, he said, "unequivocally fails to reflect the structure of Holocaust Jews, at least 45 percent of whom live in Israel."

In addition, he lambasted the fact that the conference approves some 800 allocations in a mere two to three meetings.

Former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who recently chaired a state commission of inquiry into Israeli government aid to Holocaust survivors, charged that "Israeli governments have used the Claims Conference as their petty cash fund."

For instance, she said, NIS 1.1 billion of the money the conference distributed in Israel was spent on infrastructure, such as hospitals and nursing homes, while another NIS 500 million has gone to Holocaust education. "We need to take care of the survivors," she said.

The parliamentary inquiry committee, which held its first meeting yesterday, was established because "throughout its 56 years in operation, the Claims Conference has never been subject to public oversight, which is wrong and inappropriate," said Committee Chair Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor). "The time has come to hold a thorough and substantive discussion of its functions and structure."

But Pines-Paz also utilized the opening session to pick a bone with State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.

Since the comptroller was in the process of investigating the Claims Conference when the parliamentary committee was established, Pines-Paz said, he sought to coordinate with him. But Lindenstrauss responded that in light of the Knesset's decision to conduct its own inquiry, he had decided to halt his office's probe.

"I'm not happy with that decision," Pines-Paz said. "It's not right that because we are investigating, he should halt his probe. The comptroller's investigative tools are completely different from those of the committee."

Pines-Paz added that he has requested a meeting with Lindenstrauss to try to persuade him to change his mind.

In response, Lindenstrauss' office said: "We stopped the investigation to prevent duplication that would interfere with the [parliamentary] inquiry committee's work. When the inquiry committee finishes its work, we'll enter the picture."