Minister for Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan, who is in charge of the talks with Germany on reparations for Holocaust survivors and retrieving Jewish property, told Haaretz he intends to discuss the matter with the German finance minister when he comes to Israel in two weeks' time.
The German media gave wide coverage to Eitan's initiative.
German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck's spokesman on Saturday issued a statement saying that the German official has no intention of discussing the topic during his upcoming visit, despite the fact that Eitan has already submitted a request to meet with him.
Eitan told Haaretz that the original reparations agreement, the Luxembourg Agreement, did not take into account many issues relating to Holocaust survivors and should therefore be reopened. That agreement stipulated that Germany would give Israel $833 million in money and merchandise, and Israel would look after the survivors, who would not be permitted to sue Germany directly.
A state comptroller's report on the treatment of Holocaust survivors, released this past August, said that in the 50 years between 1954 and 2004, the government had spent some $3.5 billion on the survivors, more than four times the sum transferred by Germany.
"We see Germany as responsible for the Holocaust survivors," Eitan told Haaretz. "The agreements with them had many holes. Nobody estimated the high cost of the last stage of life in the modern era, or that people would live at least ten years longer on average than they did in the 1950s."
The Luxembourg Agreement also failed to take into account the arrival of many additional survivors to Israel. "Nobody thought that 175,000 Holocaust refugees from the former Soviet Union would come to Israel," Eitan said. "That changed the entire picture, even if the Germans aren't interested."
An agreement between the Israeli government and survivors' organizations, which the cabinet approved earlier this week, provides for payments and benefits to survivors totaling NIS 2 billion over the next three years. The government undertook to finance the plan, but now expects Germany to contribute its share.
Over the last four months, while government officials were negotiating the agreement with survivors' representatives, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other ministers said in closed forums that Israel ought to ask Germany to cover the increased payments. However, this is the first time a minister has said so publicly.
The German weekly Der Spiegel reported last week that Eitan sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in August, demanding that Germany waive an Israeli debt of 500 million euros, after which Israel would deposit this money in a fund dedicated to survivors' needs. The German deputy finance minister rejected the idea, and Eitan told him: "So just give us the money," Der Spiegel reported.
Eitan responded that he did not make demands of Germany, and that this was merely one of many ways in which Germany could finance the survivors' stipends.
Sources in the Ministry for Pensioner Affairs said that Accountant General Yaron Zelekha was the one who thought of waiving the debt.
The Foreign Ministry is concerned that Eitan's demands might damage the delicate relations between Israel and Germany. "I never denied that my approach is problematic, but it's based on facts and the truth," Eitan responded. "I'm acting for the good of Holocaust survivors."
"It's not enough to work with one minister or another," Eitan said. "We told the Germans that we must set up a professional team to examine the issue in a professional way."
A senior German Foreign Ministry source told Haaretz that Germany would accept some of the Israeli demands, and that Merkel had instructed officials to handle the matter "sympathetically." However, the German treasury wants to avoid setting a precedent by reopening the reparations agreement.
Eitan is convinced that "ultimately, Germany will agree to the demands. They have their own 'treasury boys,' as we do, who guard the public coffers; they're right from their point of view. They're doing their job, and I'm doing mine."