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Israel is trying to gain control over one of the world's richest Jewish organizations, in the name of promoting the welfare of Holocaust survivors.

A group of Israeli organizations headed by Minister Rafi Eitan (Pensioners), who holds the Diaspora affairs portfolio, announced this week that Israel wants the right to appoint half the members of the executive of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a U.S.-based organization that represents world Jewry and Holocaust survivors in their negotiations over reparations from Germany.

Eitan estimates the Claims Conference's financial reserves at some $1.7 billion. Every year, the conference gives grants totaling about $90 million to organizations worldwide that help Holocaust survivors or are involved in Holocaust education and memorialization. About half of this money goes to Israeli organizations.

In addition to the government, the groups backing Eitan's demand include the Jewish Agency, Yad Vashem and Israeli survivors' organizations. All currently receive grants from the Claims Conference, but all would like their allocations increased.

At a press conference in Jerusalem earlier this week, Eitan declared: "This money belongs to Holocaust survivors, and it is inconceivable that [people] in the United States should decide how to divvy up this money in Israel." He has asked the cabinet to devote time at its next meeting to approving a list of demands to be submitted to the Claims Conference.

Other speakers at the press conference levied a barrage of accusations at the Claims Conference. Noah Flug, who heads the umbrella organization of Israeli Holocaust survivors' associations, complained about the fact that about one-third of Claims Conference grants go to elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, via the Joint Distribution Committee. This proportion, he charged, is based on inaccurate data about the number of Holocaust survivors still living in those areas.

"We have no say in this organization," he complained. "They decide for us and without us."

'Recognize Israel's centrality'

Jewish Agency Chair Zeev Bielski complained that the Claims Conference was the only Jewish organization that did not immediately accede to his appeal to help residents of the North following this summer's Lebanon war. "This organization is disconnected from the State of Israel," he charged. "Its members are organizations that existed 50 years ago. The struggle will continue until those people come to the table and recognize Israel's centrality."

The Claims Conference indignantly rejected the Israelis' charges yesterday.

Attorney Julius Berman, chairman of the organization's board of directors, described the press conference as a "very negative incident."

"We're a democratic organization, and there are accepted ways of proposing changes," he told Haaretz during a visit to Sderot, adding that the Israelis would not achieve their goals via this "foolish protest."

Berman noted that half the members of the Claims Conference's allocations committee are Holocaust survivors, and one-third are Israeli. However, he added, all committee members are obliged to see to Holocaust survivors' welfare - not just those representing survivors' organizations.

Regarding allocations to the former Soviet Union, Berman explained that allocations are determined by the survivors' needs, not by how many there are. As for Bielski's accusations, Berman pointed out that much of what the Jewish Agency chair wanted money for was outside the Claims Conference's mandate. He added he was shocked that Bielski, after having obtained $350 million for northern Israel from other American Jewish organizations, sought to obtain additional sums from Holocaust survivors.

The Claims Conference was founded in 1951 at the instigation of the Israeli government, which wanted an organization to represent world Jewry in negotiations with Germany over Holocaust reparations. The organization's executive includes representatives of 23 Jewish organizations, which were chosen by Nahum Goldman, then head of the World Zionist Organization. Eventually, however, Israel and the Claims Conference settled on a division of labor: The former handled negotiations with Germany over global reparations, while the latter dealt with issues such as claims for stolen Jewish property.

Official reparations

But Israel lost interest in the issue after obtaining $715 million from Germany under a 1952 reparations agreement. Thus it is the Claims Conference that continues to negotiate with Germany over benefits to survivors.

Israel's interest in the Claims Conference revived in the late 1990s, when it suddenly became one of the richest Jewish organizations in the world. That happened when a reunified Germany declared the Claims Conference heir to all Jewish property in the former East Germany whose true heirs could not be found. The organization, which had been on the verge of shutting down, suddenly began raking in millions from the sale of these properties.

To date, the Claims Conference has won 10,693 suits for the return of Jewish properties in eastern Germany, and its income from the sale of these properties, along with the ongoing reparations payments, is expected to total over $2 billion. The organization has decided that 80 percent of this money will be used to help needy survivors and 20 percent will go toward Holocaust education, documentation and memorialization.

The conference also decided that 60 percent of the money would go to organizations in Israel. But in practice, Israeli groups receive only 48 percent of these funds. That is what has prompted several recent Israeli governments to push for more Israeli involvement in the allocation process - thus far, with limited success.