Negotiations over the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps in Poland could begin in a matter of weeks now that hundreds of crosses erected by Polish Catholic extremists have been removed, according to the chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the head of the coalition negotiating with the government in Warsaw.
Miles Lerman stressed that no decisions have been made about the future of the large “papal cross” remaining at the site, the issue that derailed negotiations last year. The papal cross was erected in 1988 to mark where Pope John Paul II prayed nine years earlier for the 152 Polish Catholics killed at that location.
Other sources close to the talks say negotiators hope to work out an agreement for a smaller monument to the
Polish Catholics who were killed at the site. Opponents promise an all-out fight against any agreement that allows Christian symbols to remain.
Negotiations broke down last year after the World Jewish Congress, a participant in the coalition, backed out of negotiations because of the presence of the large cross. Polish extremists then erected the additional crosses to protest what they claimed was Jewish meddling in internal Polish affairs.
“I advised the Polish government that until they were removed, there is no way I could bring the coalition back to the table,” Lerman said. “Now that those crosses have been removed as a result of the cooperation of the Polish government and leaders of the clergy, we are back to the status quo. So we are prepared to sit down with the representatives of the Polish government and negotiate all outstanding issues.”
Lerman said negotiators will focus on three areas. Most visitors now come only to the Auschwitz l site; Lerman said an overall plan must “induce visitors to come to Birkenau, where they will learn that 95 percent of the victims there were Jews.”
A second priority is to clarify rules protecting the perimeter of the camp from commercial encroachment. The new law giving the federal government in Poland jurisdiction over all the death camp sites, which was pushed through to enable the government to remove the 300 crosses, could make that process easier, Lerman said.
“Now we will be dealing only with the Polish government and not the townships,” he said. “This is a very important development.”
Finally, negotiators will seek a solution for the 26-foot papal cross. During debate over the new law, Polish lawmakers added an amendment requiring that the cross remain. It was removed before final passage, but Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek has indicated he does not want to remove the controversial cross.
“There may be a way of dealing with it though a calm and thoughtful negotiating process,” Lerman said, “but it will not happen quickly.”
A calm environment is unlikely in light of the intensifying debate among Jewish groups about whether any Christian symbols should be permitted at the camp where more than 1 million Jews were murdered. Lerman praised the Polish government’s determination to defuse the crisis, but conceded that Polish-Jewish relations have been strained by the protracted controversy.
Lerman said the coalition will meet with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in the next two weeks. Holocaust council sources say they will not move forward without Wiesel, whose reservations about the possibility that the papal cross might remain helped scuttle the preliminary agreement last year.
Then, Lerman said, they will approach the Polish government about when to resume negotiations.
The chief critic of the prospective Auschwitz agreement, Rabbi Avi Weiss, was unavailable for comment. But in a statement, the Riverdale activist charged that the removal of the additional crosses is a “step backwards” for the Jewish community because it will divert attention from what Rabbi Weiss said is the key issue — the papal cross.
Reduced Role For U.S.?
The Clinton administration is keeping its head way down as Ehud Barak assembles his ruling coalition in Jerusalem. Officials here emphasize that until a coalition is formed, reports suggesting dramatic changes in the incoming government’s approach to the peace process represent obvious trial balloons, not indications of hard-and-fast policy.
Hard information is scarce, but administration sources concede there has been little substantive contact between the State Department Mideast team and Barak’s inner circle, and that much of their information is coming from the Israeli press.
Still, there is a growing sense here that the peace process may soon be on a fast track — and that Washington may be shunted aside.
“The indications all point to the fact that Barak is taking the need to move forward rapidly very seriously,” said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He doesn’t object to the concept of an American role but to the way this administration has defined that role. He wants to leave the incrementalism that has characterized the administration’s approach behind and go for the final goal.”
The same calculus applies to reports in Israel that Barak is considering going directly into final status negotiations with the Palestinians, skipping remaining items from last year’s Wye River agreement, Kipper said. Palestinians would probably support such a move, she said, “as long as implementation of Wye is not totally foreclosed.”
The administration will be less enthusiastic, Kipper said. But other sources here say that if Barak decides to take that bold step, the administration will eventually swallow their misgivings and go along.
Jewish leaders on the right also are pleased by the prospect of a diminished U.S. role.
“Netanyahu made a major mistake by inviting the Americans to become active mediators and judges,” said a vocal Jewish critic of the Oslo negotiations. “Many of us said that directly to Bibi. If Barak decides that the U.S. role will be diminished, it’s all to the better.”
Barak may have sent out a strong signal of his intention to accelerate the Mideast talks when he met Tuesday with a group of leaders of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum in Jerusalem — his first meeting with any Jewish organization since the May 17 election.
Embassy Issue At A Boil
The effort to force the Clinton administration’s hand on the stalled move of the U.S embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem escalated this week with the release of a Senate letter on the subject.
Under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, the move was supposed to take place by May 31; if it didn’t, half the money used to maintain and acquire U.S. embassy buildings abroad would be frozen. The law allows the president to invoke a national security waiver, but so far President Clinton has not done so.
The administration claims the 50 percent spending threshold has not been reached, but that argument will be almost impossible to sustain after July 1, sources here say.
The object of the congressional move — sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) — is really to keep Clinton from issuing a waiver by threatening new legislation, according to Douglas Feith, a national security official during the Reagan administration and the man most directly responsible for the letter.
“The goal is to pre-empt a waiver, so we won’t have this anti-Israel gesture on the record,” he said.
But Feith indicated new legislation is likely no matter what Clinton does. Supporters are willing to “slip” the date for the embassy move — possibly by a year, he said. That would require new legislation, and he added that any new measure would likely remove the waiver provisions as well.
Feith said supporters are seeking a veto-proof majority in the Senate, and that a growing number of Jewish groups are supporting the congressional squeeze play.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), another key sponsor of the letter, said: “It’s time for the administration to stop dragging its feet. Invoking this waiver now would only prolong the inevitable.”
“There’s always a ‘good’ reason not to move the embassy,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But there has to be a time when our government goes ahead and does the right thing.”
Administration sources say the White House will put off a decision on the waiver until they begin their preliminary discussions with the incoming Israeli government.
“There’s the hope Ehud Barak will provide a compelling reason why this shouldn’t be a priority right now — such as a quick resumption of peace talks and a move to the final-status negotiations,” said a leading peace process supporter here. “If that doesn’t happen, the administration will have to issue the waiver and face the consequences later on.”
School Prayer Amendment: The Sequel
The infamous Istook Amendment, which would legalize sectarian prayer in the public schools as well as funding for parochial institutions, apparently is getting a second chance after a big defeat last year.
There were indications the Republican leadership may push the controversial measure as a kind of consolation prize to make up for surprising GOP support for gun-control measures now working their way through Congress.
“They will take advantage of the recent tragic school violence solely to engage in political grandstanding and to perpetuate half-truths and untruths about the state of religion in American schools,” said David Harris, Washington director for the American Jewish Congress.
Harris said the measure is even less likely to pass this time around because of the reduced Republican majority, but he warned that backers will use hearings on the proposed amendment to add to the widespread perception that religion has been all but barred from the public schools — a perception Harris says is wrong.
This week Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) circulated a letter to colleagues seeking cosponsors. Pitts, seeking a connection with the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, wrote that “class videos can depict killers in trench coats gunning down athletes in a school hallway, but the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed. … It’s time to let God back in our classrooms.”