Israel opts to extradite teen but legal battle may ensue

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WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration and pro-Israel activists breathed a sigh of relief this week when Israel announced it would extradite Samuel Sheinbein, a suburban Washington teenager accused of a grisly murder.

But the joy over the decision was tempered by Sheinbein's decision to fight the extradition and seek an Israeli trial.

The legal battle could take up to two years, Israeli officials told American prosecutors.

Sheinbein, the 17-year-old who fled the United States to Israel last month after police named him the chief suspect in the dismemberment and burning of his 19-year-old friend, remains in an Israeli jail pending extradition.

A former classmate of Sheinbein's at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in suburban Maryland, Aaron Benjamin Needle, surrendered to police days after the Sept. 18 attack.

The case had erupted into a diplomatic imbroglio because of an Israeli law that prevents the extradition of its citizens.

In an unprecedented move, Israel rejected Sheinbein's claim of dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship without revoking the citizenship of his father. The younger Sheinbein has never lived in Israel.

Sheinbein's father was born in British-mandate Palestine. Under Israeli law, citizenship traditionally passes from parents to children.

But Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, citing the extraordinary circumstances of the case, ruled this week that the younger Sheinbein is not a citizen.

The decision was based in part on U.S. and Canadian documents from the late 1940s, when the Sheinbein family first sought to leave Israel.

Sheinbein's lawyers immediately protested the decision and vowed to appeal the matter all the way to Israel's Supreme Court, if necessary.

David Libai, a former Israeli justice minister who is representing Sheinbein, said he would challenge the extradition based on the decision to leave the father's citizenship in place.

In a news conference after the decision was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "Clearly the state of Israel is a country governed by law, and we act only within the framework of the law.

"If according to the law it is possible to extradite the fugitive to the United States, we will do it. That was our intention to begin with, and I hope it will happen."

Netanyahu had faced pressure from some American Jewish groups, members of Congress and the Clinton administration.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had urged Netanyahu in a personal letter to find a way to extradite Sheinbein, welcomed the Israeli decision.

Albright is "grateful for the government of Israel's full cooperation in this case," said State Department spokesman James Rubin.

The United States plans to file a formal extradition request. Israeli courts then have 60 days to act on the extradition.

Israeli officials said that if the extradition is overturned, Sheinbein would be tried in Israel.

U.S. pressure reached a fevered pitch last week when Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, promised to force a vote on cutting as much as $1.2 billion in U.S. aid to Israel if Sheinbein was not extradited.

After the Israeli decision, Livingston told his colleagues that he does not expect to take any action on the U.S. aid to Israel, which amounts to more than $3 billion each year.

However, the chairman of the committee responsible for writing the foreign aid bill, Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), continues to hold $75.6 million in aid to Israel, which was scheduled to receive part of its aid this week.

Callahan said he plans to hold the money for leverage in a debate over how much U.S. aid should go to the Middle East. He said he was "encouraged" by the Israeli decision on Sheinbein.

Embattled by the rising crescendo of criticism directed at Israel's handling of the case, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement praising the Israeli justice system.

"Once again Israel has demonstrated its commitment to due process and the pursuit of justice," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the conference.

"Israel's action validated that it is a nation governed by the rule of the law and once again exposed those who were so quick to condemn and criticize."