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Congress Steps Up Pressure on Israel to Extradite Suspect

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Congressional Republicans are tightening the financial screws on Israel in an effort to win the extradition of a suburban Washington teenager accused of murder.

Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House committee responsible for foreign aid, this week placed a hold on $75.6 million in U.S. economic aid to Israel.

Callahan said through a spokesman that the hold was “not necessarily related” to case of Samuel 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.

Rather, Callahan’s spokesman said, the hold was connected to the larger question of how funding to Middle East nations is divided.

However Republican congressional sources and a State Department official said the hold was aimed at sending a message to the Israelis as they complete their investigation into Sheinbein’s claim of Israeli citizenship.

Sheinbein has claimed dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship in an effort to avoid the American justice system.

If Sheinbein’s Israeli citizenship claim is upheld, he cannot be extradited under Israeli law. His father was born in British-mandate Palestine and received Israeli citizenship — which extends to his children under Israeli law.

Since Congress has not yet passed the foreign aid bill, Israel, which usually receives its full $3 billion in aid in October, was instead scheduled to receive a partial payment of $75.6 million next week under a temporary spending measure.

U.S. and Israeli officials are examining the application for citizenship from Sheinbein’s relatives when they first came to the United States in the late 1940s to determine if they renounced their Israeli citizenship.

In a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not extradite Sheinbein if his citizenship claim is valid.

The Israeli law barring extradition of an Israeli citizen has infuriated U.S. lawmakers and prosecutors. They have accused Sheinbein, who has never lived in Israel, of fleeing to escape justice.

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

Israel has vowed to put Sheinbein on trial and has offered to pay for the estimated $2 million it would cost prosecutors to try the case in Israel.

But if found guilty, Sheinbein is likely to receive a lighter sentence than he would in the United States.

A decision on his extradition is expected next week.

Against this deadline, Callahan has teamed up with the chairman House Appropriations Committee Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.) to threaten a permanent cut in U.S. aid if Sheinbein is not extradited to the United States.

When asked on NBC’s “Today” show this week about withholding aid to Israel, Livingston said that if Sheinbein is not back in the United States, “we will definitely consider” cutting Israel’s aid.

He also hinted that short of cutting Israel’s aid altogether, he would propose eliminating a provision known as early disbursal that enables Israel to receive the aid within 30 days after the foreign aid bill becomes law.

Without this preference, Israel would lose tens of millions of dollars in 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.

Faced with growing pressures from Congress, Israel is trying to mobilize Jewish groups to support their decision if they do not extradite Sheinbein.

Two senior Israeli Embassy officials called on Jewish groups to lobby Callahan and Livingston to allow Israel’s aid to flow.

The officials also asked 15 Jewish representatives at an embassy briefing Tuesday to work with other members of Congress to persuade Callahan and Livingston to back down.

While some groups are backing Israel’s legal position, others, including the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, are urging Israel to extradite Sheinbein.

Phil Baum, executive director of the AJCongress, said in a statement that it would be a “travesty” if Israeli law “were to be construed as affording sanctuary and protection to every Jew who invokes these provisions for the unabashed, naked purpose of avoiding accountability for an alleged crime.”

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