This week Maryland prosecutors suffered yet another serious setback in their effort to make a teen murder suspect who fled to Israel and claimed citizenship pay for his crimes.
Making matters worse, Israel is apparently balking at paying the bill for the extraordinary legal proceedings despite earlier promises.
Over the weekend Samuel Sheinbein, accused in the 1997 murder of another suburban Washington teenager, Alfredo Tello Jr., surprised prosecutors with a not guilty plea.
“Before the [Israeli] Supreme Court, his lawyer said that if you don’t extradite him, he will plead guilty,” said an enraged Douglas Gansler, the Montgomery County states attorney. “So his change of heart is a violation of a promise he made in open court.”
Sheinbein’s father was born in pre-statehood Palestine, although he has lived in
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this country since 1950. But in February, the Supreme Court ruled that since his father was still technically a citizen, Samuel Sheinbein could not be extradited because of a now-revised law prohibiting the extradition of Israeli nationals.
Sheinbein did plead guilty to helping a friend, Aaron Needle, dismember Tello’s body. Needle — like Sheinbein a onetime student at a Jewish day school here — committed suicide in his Maryland jail cell last year a day before his murder trial was scheduled to begin.
But Sheinbein has only been indicted for murder. It is unclear whether he could be convicted of being an accessory under the strange legal arrangement worked out after Israel rejected his extradition.
Gansler, who is Jewish, said Maryland authorities have a strong case of first-degree murder against Sheinbein. “But we’ve been surprised at his ability to continually manipulate the Israeli legal system for his own advantage. It just validates the need to have him extradited in the first place.”
Gansler said Sheinbein’s plea will make it harder to win a conviction because of what he said was the “logistical nightmare” posed by having the trial in Israel, before an Israeli judge and regulated by Israeli laws of evidence.
And he expressed strong disappointment at the performance of the Israeli prosecutors handling the case.
Israel also rejected Gansler’s request that the trial be held in this country, using Israeli judges and prosecutors.
“They summarily rejected the idea without giving any idea of why. And now he’s pleading not guilty. You could say we are very discouraged.”
He warned that if Sheinbein does beat the system, there will be a “significant reaction” against Israel in this country.
And Gansler is worried Maryland could get stuck with the check.
Israeli officials said last year they would pay the costs of trying Samuel Sheinbein there. But Israel has not responded to a $14,000 bill sent by Gansler two months ago — a small fraction of what is expected to be a huge bill when the case is completed.
Clinton Stumbles On Palestinian Issue
The Clinton administration wanted to get off on the right foot with Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is expected to make his inaugural visit to Washington as premier later this month. But last week the foot ended up in President Bill Clinton’s mouth as the president trod clumsily on the volatile issue of Palestinian refugees.
Responding to questions at a news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Clinton said that “I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and were free to live wherever they like, wherever they want to live.”
State Department officials quickly tried to douse the fires by emphasizing another part of Clinton’s statement in which he pointed out that refugees’ return will depend “on what the nature of the settlement [between Israel and the Palestinians] is.”
A number of Jewish leaders said they were willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt and treat the comments as a stumble by an obviously tired president — but only if Clinton retracted his comments, which they say can unreasonably raise Palestinian expectations about an American tilt on a vital final-status issue.
But so far, Clinton has not responded publicly, although he told Barak there has been no change in U.S. policy during a phone conversation on Monday.
National Security adviser Sandy Berger, responding to a protest by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), said, “There has been no change in our policy. As the president made clear … the resolution of this issue will depend on the shape of the final status agreement.”
Administration sources say a public statement by the president is likely when Barak comes to town. By Wednesday, no date had been set, but Israeli and U.S. officials expect a visit before the end of the month.
But that did little to reassure Jewish leaders.
“The situation is still fluid,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. But he conceded that even a retraction may not dampen Palestinian expectations raised by Clinton’s comments.
“A presidential retraction is better than none,” he said. “Whether the situation returns us to the status quo is another question.”
Hordes said Jewish leaders are worried that the statement “might suggest a precedent in terms of American involvement in other final-status issues. It created the impression of a change and that will have an impact.”
Terror Panel Appointee Under Fire
Pressure is mounting on House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) to withdraw his nomination of the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) to the government’s Commission on Terrorism.
According to the Zionist Organization of America, which is spearheading a major campaign on the issue, Salam Al-Marayati is an “extremist” who has “justified future terrorism against America.”
ZOA President Morton Klein, in a statement, said that “there is a disturbing and dangerous pattern here — under the Clinton-Gore administration individuals who are overtly antagonistic toward Israel have been appointed to government positions, organizations that have praised Arab terrorist groups have been hosted at the White House, and now an individual who justifies Arab terrorism and accuses America of being the real terrorists has been appointed to a U.S. government commission that deals with terrorism-related issues.”
As an example, Klein cited a 1997 comment by Marayati in which he said the MPAC leader justified a Hamas bombing in Tel Aviv.
A ZOA press release quoted Marayati as blaming former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the killings, and claiming that “Because the Palestinian people have no avenues to redress their grievances, some of them have been pushed beyond the margins of society and have adopted violent reactions to express their despair and suffering.”
Other voices in the Jewish community say that al-Marayati has been a force for moderation within the American Islamic community — but that his appointment to the terror panel may still be inappropriate because of his failure to unequivocally condemn violence by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
“In terms of American Muslim groups, he’s as good as it gets,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “He’s sophisticated, forward looking and he has said some thoughtful things about the need for Muslim Americans to be more involved in the public discourse about terrorism. But there are troubling negatives, as well.”
This observer pointed out that Israeli leaders — including Prime Minister Barak — have also expressed understanding for the motives that impel Palestinian terrorists.
But al-Marayati has “not taken the minimal step of unequivocally denouncing terrorism and praising the peace process that one would expect for a nominee to this panel,” said Stacy Burdett, assistant director of theAnti-Defamation League’s Washington office.
She added that al-Marayati is on the editorial board of The Minaret, a publication that “is guilty of drivingly anti-Israel rhetoric of the sort that we condemn in our own community when it is aimed at Palestinians. That makes his appointment to this panel troubling.”Gephardt has reportedly said he made the appointment at the request of Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), who has often been at odds with pro-Israel groups. There are also reports he will simply let the appointment languish until the Commission finishes its work in six months.