The Sheinbein Case and the Israeli-American Extradition Experience: A Need for Compromise

By Abramovsky, Abraham; Edelstein, Jonathan I. | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Sheinbein Case and the Israeli-American Extradition Experience: A Need for Compromise


Abramovsky, Abraham, Edelstein, Jonathan I., Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


I. INTRODUCTION

The relationship between the United States and Israel is a complicated one and has historically been defined by major geopolitical issues such as the Cold War and the ongoing Middle East peace process. Thus, it can be considered something of a surprise that the most volatile political rift between the United States and Israel in 1997 concerned not settlements in the West Bank but a murder in Maryland.

Initially, this murder did not seem to be destined to turn into an international incident. On September 19, 1997, the burned and dismembered body of Enrique Tello, Jr., was discovered by police in a suburban Maryland neighborhood near the home of Samuel Sheinbein.(1) According to area residents, Sheinbein and his friend Aaron Needle, both seventeen, had been seen pulling a wheeled cart the previous week on a path near the location where the body was found.(2) Local police sought Sheinbein and Needle for questioning in the murder.

Rather than face questioning, Sheinbein fled the country.(3) Five days after the police first sought Sheinbein for questioning, he turned up in Tel Aviv; located by Israeli police acting on a tip they had received from his family.(4) Based on information received from U.S. authorities, Israeli police took Sheinbein into custody pending application for extradition from the United States.(5)

This was the last event in the Sheinbein case which resembled an ordinary murder prosecution. Thereafter, events rapidly mushroomed. Under an Israeli law enacted in 1978, the Offenses Committed Abroad Act, Israel will not extradite suspects who were Israeli citizens at the time their alleged offense was committed.(6) Accordingly, Sheinbein, even though he was born in the United States and had never lived in Israel, claimed that he was an Israeli citizen.(7) He based his claim on the nationality of his father, Sol, who was born in territory within the British Mandate of Palestine, and emigrated to the United States in 1950.(8) Sheinbein thus claimed that under the Israel nationality law, which grants citizenship to any person with Israeli parents, he was an Israeli national and could not be extradited.(9)

On September 29, after examining Sheinbein's claim, Israeli diplomats gave notice to the United States that Israel would refuse to extradite him to face trial in Maryland(10) pursuant to the Offenses Committed Abroad Act.(11) Instead, as has been the recent custom between the two countries,(12) they offered to try him in Israel on the Maryland murder charges.(13) In contrast with prior precedent, the Israeli government even agreed to bear the cost of the prosecution.(14) Rather than ameliorating the situation, however, this proposal set off a firestorm of political repercussions in the United States. Robert Dean, the Maryland prosecutor in charge of the Tello murder, almost immediately denounced the Israeli proposal as burdensome and unjust,(15) and expressed concern that Sheinbein might obtain more lenient treatment in an Israeli court than in a Maryland tribunal.(16) In addition, as Israeli officials struggled to find a means of returning Sheinbein to the United States, Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.) threatened to withhold almost $50 million in U.S. aid to Israel if Sheinbein was not extradited.(17) The Sheinbein case thus managed to do--what even the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations did not do -- threaten the long-standing friendly relationship between the United States and Israel.

The political implications of the Sheinbein case, however, may not be as surprising as they initially seem -- because crime itself has taken on increasing geopolitical significance. In the past twenty years, drug trafficking and money laundering, along with other forms of criminal conduct, have become increasingly transnational.(18) In pursuit of international cooperation against these crimes, the United States has increasingly demanded that other nations cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of criminals -- even to the extent that certain nations view U. …

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