By HAVIV RETTIG

The Claims Conference is withholding funds for Jewish Agency programs until agency head Ze’ev Bielski recants his assertion that the conference is failing to distribute money to Holocaust survivors, according to leaks to the media on Thursday.

For several years, joint efforts by Israeli survivors’ organizations, Bielski and Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan have tried to change the way Holocaust-era restitution funds held by the Claims Conference are distributed.

The conference is composed of two-dozen organizations, including many Israeli and survivor groups, but Israeli groups want a larger number of Israeli representatives on the board in order to funnel more funds to survivors here.

In the context of this fight, the instigators of the effort have said that the conference possesses some $1 billion which it is refusing to disburse to the deserving and aging survivors. However, this claim, published last year in a report commissioned by Eitan and the Jewish Agency, is inaccurate.

“After we checked into it comprehensively, I can say the Claims Conference does not have a billion dollars sitting somewhere that they aren’t distributing,” said Jewish Agency Treasurer Hagai Merom. “They have a three-year plan for disbursing the remaining funds in a planned way.”

Documentation of the Claims Conference shows that funds are mostly spoken for by heirs as they complete the restitution process and by an assessment of future needs.

According to the conference, funding has been frozen on three Jewish Agency educational projects – some 20% of the conference’s funds go to education projects rather than survivors’ welfare – whose value is $378,000.

Now, press leaks are trying to link the freezing of these projects – out of several million dollars in allocations given to the agency from the conference – to “a demand by the conference that Bielski apologize.”

The Jewish Agency itself did not deny the contents of the leak, saying Bielski “would continue to act for survivors’ welfare and transparency in organizations dealing with them,” and “does not have any contact with the Claims Conference regarding his opinions or statements.”

Conference officials completely denied the allegations, and sources familiar with the conference’s operations said it was unclear why Bielski, who is also vice president of the conference, would support the assertion in the first place.

Published in Europe, the claims have reportedly hurt ongoing negotiation efforts for more aid to survivors.