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Congress may link Israel’s aid to surrender of murder suspect

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (JTA) – A grizzly murder in suburban Washington is threatening to open a diplomatic row that could cost Israel tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Samuel Sheinbein, 17, fled the United States to Israel after police named him the chief suspect in the dismemberment and burning of his 19-year-old friend. A former classmate of Sheinbein’s at the Charles E. Smith Jewish day school, Aaron Benjamin Needle, surrendered to police days after the Sept. 18 attack. Israeli law prevents Sheinbein’s extradition because he is an Israeli citizen. Sheinbein’s father was born in British mandate Palestine and received Israeli citizenship – which extends to his children. This loophole has infuriated U.S. lawmakers and prosecutors. They have accused Sheinbein, who has never lived in Israel, of fleeing to escape justice. Israeli and American prosecutors are seeking a loophole in Israeli law in order to deny Sheinbein Israeli citizenship. Criminal proceedings against Sheinbein, who is in Israeli custody, were scheduled to begin later this week. If convicted in an Israeli court, Sheinbein would likely receive a lighter sentence than he would in the United States because in the Jewish state he would be tried as a juvenile. Against this backdrop, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has embarked on a desperate attempt at crisis control. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Robert Livingston (R-La.), vowed to strike at the $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel if Sheinbein is not extradited. The committee has jurisdiction over the foreign aid bill. Livingston initially planned to attach an amendment to the bill that would cut $50 million from Israel’s aid. Now, congressional sources say he is seeking to take away a measure, known as early disbursal, which guarantees that Israel will receive all of the aid by the end of October. The move would cost Israel tens of millions of dollars in lost interest on the $1.2 billion in economic assistance – and perhaps much more if the Jewish state cannot meet its financial obligation on military contracts paid through the $1.8 billion military aid. The House and Senate have passed the foreign aid bill, and a small group of negotiators are working to hammer out differences between the bills and could include Livingston’s amendment if they so desire. Both the House and Senate have to pass the compromise version of the bill before it is sent to President Clinton. Israeli officials have met with Livingston in an attempt to explain that Israel will not extradite Sheinbein if he is a citizen. For now, Livingston is standing firm in his threat. Groups as diverse as the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council have urged Livingston to leave Israel’s aid alone. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a member of Livingston’s committee, asked for restraint. “I have great respect for the chairman but he is absolutely wrong on this issue,” said Lowey, adding that she believes that Sheinbein should stand trial in the United States. On another front, Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) introduced a non-binding congressional resolution urging Israel to return Sheinbein. Morella’s district includes the Aspen Hill neighborhood where Alfredo Enrique Tello, Jr. was murdered. For now, the Clinton administration’s policy on the matter is clear. “The Israeli government should assist us in bringing Mr. Sheinbein to justice in the United States,” said James Rubin, State Department spokesman. Rubin added that Albright made it clear in a message to Netanyahu, “that we think that the maximum cooperation from the Israeli government would be helpful in trying to bring the person to justice,” Rubin said.

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