Attorney General Edwin Meese III has told Israel that Kurt Waldheim's candidacy for president of Austria will not be a factor in deciding whether to bar the former U.N. secretary general from the United States. But Meese did not say whether he will make a decision before the Austrian election on June 8.
Meese's assurance that the election will not be allowed to influence the Justice Department's inquiry into Waldheim's World War II record was given to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir during Meese's visit to Israel last week, sources familiar with the investigation said yesterday.
Neal Sher, head of Justice's Office of Special Investigations, recommended last month that Waldheim be put on the "watch list" of persons not permitted to enter this country because of charges that he was involved in atrocities against Yugoslav partisans.
Waldheim, who was U.N. secretary general from 1972 to 1982, has denied the charges. He narrowly failed to win when Austrians voted for president earlier this month and is regarded as the front-runner in the June 8 runoff.
The sources said Meese told the Israelis that Sher's recommendation was under study, and he promised to check on the status of the case. But, the sources added, he gave no timetable for deciding whether to accept Sher's opinion.
The House, responding to pleas from members who want a quick decision, yesterday adopted a resolution urging Meese to make a speedy investigation of Waldheim's past. The voice vote came after the House Judiciary Committee approved the resolution, 31 to 0, earlier in the day.
The congressional action appeared to reflect suspicion that the Reagan administration might be seeking to delay a decision until after June 8 to avoid charges of interference in Austria's internal affairs.
If Waldheim is elected Austria's president, putting him on the "watch list" of undesirable aliens would become a moot point. As a head of state, he would enjoy diplomatic immunity and theoretically could enter the country. But diplomatic protocol also would inhibit him from visiting the United States without an invitation from an American president, and the controversy about his past makes it virtually certain that such an invitation would not be extended.
Waldheim theoretically could visit the United Nations in his capacity as president. However, revelations that he concealed his service as a German army officer in the Balkans from his former U.N. associates have caused great anger there, and it is doubtful that he would risk the embarrassment of appearing before them.
Several present and former Justice Department attorneys have noted that there never has been an instance where the OSI has been turned down on a recommendation to put someone on the "watch list." They noted that the U.N. War Crimes Commission decided in 1948 that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Waldheim, and they said that under the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act that constituted grounds for automatically excluding him.