October 22, 1998
The Case of Runaway Teen Samuel Sheinbein
Amid the bizarre string of foreign-policy fiascos in which Israelfound itself mired as it greeted the new year, surely none was quiteso bizarre as the case of runaway teenager Samuel Sheinbein ofMaryland.
Sheinbein, 17, a high school senior from Montgomery County, anaffluent suburb of Washington, D.C., is a suspect in one of thestate's most grisly murders in recent memory. He fled to Israel Sept.21, two days after a charred, dismembered corpse was found near hishome. Israel detained him a week later, but announced it could notextradite him. He claims Israeli citizenship, and Israeli law barsextradition of its citizens.
Maryland authorities called the Israeli stance "absurd." A team ofstate and federal lawyers flew to Tel Aviv on the eve of the new yearto press for extradition. Israel was scrambling for a way to getaround its own law and comply. While the lawyers argued, Sheinbeinspent Rosh Hashanah under suicide watch in an Israeli jail.
The case might have drawn little notice beyond the local news, butfor the fact that the local newspaper in Montgomery County happens tobe the Washington Post, the daily paper of America's policy elite.The lurid tale has stirred anger from one end of Pennsylvania Avenueto the other, say numerous sources. One key lawmaker, Rep. BobLivingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee,threatened to cut $50 million from Israel's U.S. aid unless the youthwere sent home. "My sensibilities as a citizen of the United Stateshave been violated," Livingston said.
The timing could not have been worse for Israel. Congress was duethis week to wrap up next year's foreign aid appropriation. The billincludes not only Israel's usual $3 billion, but $100 million for thePalestinians. Pro-Israel lobbyists had sought to link that aid toPalestinian compliance with various obligations -- including,administration sources tartly noted, extradition to Israel of accusedPalestinian murderers.
In public, there were few signs that the case would be used fordiplomatic leverage. Congress and the administration alike appearedeager to isolate it from other U.S.-Israeli sore points. There weresigns, however, that the affair might yet damage Israel in ways othercrises have not, by undercutting Israel's last line of support,heartland conservatives.
The story began Sept. 19, when a real estate agent found anunidentified corpse in an empty house in Wheaton, limbless and burnedalmost beyond recognition. Following a trail of blood to theSheinbein garage, police found damning evidence including an electricsaw. On Sept. 22, a warrant was issued for Sheinbein's arrest. Bythen he had fled to his grandmother's home in Israel.
Two days later, police arrested a second suspect, Aaron Needle,17, a friend of Sheinbein's since their primary school days at alocal Jewish community day school. The victim was now identified asAlfredo Enrique Tello Jr., 19, a friend of Needle's. Witnessesreported seeing the three together shortly before Tello disappeared.On Sept. 27, Sheinbein was picked up in Tel Aviv, after beinghospitalized for a drug overdose.
The crime story became a diplomatic incident on Sept. 29, whenIsrael announced it could not send Sheinbein home because of a 1977law, inspired by French swindler-turned-Knesset member Samuel Flatto-Sharon, barring extradition of Israeli citizens. Sheinbein isU.S.-born, but claims Israeli citizenship through his father Sol, whowas born in British-ruled Palestine in 1944 and brought to America in1950.
In the manicured suburbs of Montgomery County, diplomacy took aback seat to speculation over the possible motives of the two Jewishday school graduates accused of the gruesome slaying. Both hadhistories of disciplinary problems, and Needle had dropped out ofhigh school. Still, friends and neighbors were hard put to connectthe teens with the crime.
Sheinbein's parents hired an investigator, who claimed to findevidence implicating Tello in drug dealing. The Sheinbeins reportedlytold a judge their son will plead self-defense, arguing Tello diedtrying to rob the other two. Tello's family angrily disputes bothallegations. Needle's attorney says his client killed no one.
Whether the two friends will stand trial together remains unclear.Israel offered to try Sheinbein in Tel Aviv, but Maryland officialssaid it would be nearly impossible. Facing intense U.S. pressure,Israel reportedly was seeking ways to expel Sheinbein on atechnicality -- perhaps by annulling the father's citizenshipVatican-style, through a loophole in Israel's citizenship law, thusinvalidating the son's claim.
As international crises go, the Sheinbein affair struck mostobservers as tepid stuff. It evokes no anti-Israel rhetoric orZionist chest-thumping, unlike such flareups as the Ras Al-Amoudsettlement dispute or the botched Sept. 25 assassination attempt on aHamas leader in Amman. Both sides would like the whole thing to goaway.
In a way, the case actually highlights the underlying solidity ofU.S.-Israel ties, which periodically weather such jolts withoutpermanent damage. The Sheinbein case might even offer a lesson aboutother U.S.-Israel disputes: The relationship is stronger thanindividual leaders or their policies.
At the same time, Israel's inability to resolve the case wasthreatening to accomplish something that no other recent dispute hasdone: alienate Israel's conservative supporters, in Congress andelsewhere, who are unmoved by Palestinian rights but outraged bycrime.
One sign: reaction to Livingston's aid threat. "We've gottentremendous support from members of Congress and from all across thecountry," says Livingston aide Mark Corallo. "We've gotten hundredsof phone calls, one hundred percent supporting us."
"It's not an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic thing," Corallo said, but"a matter of American justice." He wasn't sharing the contents of themessages, though.
J.J. Goldberg is the author of "Jewish Power: Inside theAmerican Jewish Establishment." He writes from New York.
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