Israeli couple seeks election to Knesset to avoid extradition to U.S.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- In 1980, the secretary of a California businesswoman opened a package for her boss and found a strange device labeled "a new age of computer sales and advertising." Patricia Wilkerson plugged it in, triggering a bomb explosion that killed her.

The chief suspects in that bombing are the latest candidates for the Israeli parliament.

Robert and Rochelle Manning, who are in an Israeli prison fighting extradition to the United States, have been nominated for the Knesset by supporters trying to prevent their criminal trial.

Robert Manning has also been publicly identified as a suspect in the 1985 assassination of an official of an Arab-American organization in California. The FBI once referred to that case as the "highest-priority investigation in our domestic terrorism program."

Mr. Manning has avoided prosecution in the United States for more than a decade by fleeing to Israel and the West Bank, even though he has returned to the United States occasionally.

In the mean time, he has won a following among ultra-religious Israelis who applaud the use of violence.

"If there's any small chance he was involved in the Palestinian killing, he should get a medal, not a trial," said Shmuel Ben-Ishai, 34, an electrician helping promote the Mannings for the Knesset.

"It's a pleasure to kill your enemies, wherever they are in the world," he said.

Supporters delivered 1,500 signatures and a $10,000 registration fee to Israeli elections officials just before the midnight deadline Tuesday to register Robert, 40, and Rochelle Manning, 52, as Knesset candidates.

Political observers scoffed at chances that the Mannings' party -- called Medinat Hayehudim -- would draw the estimated 40,000 votes needed to win a Knesset seat in the election June 23. But those behind the move said they are confident they will win and prevent the Mannings' extradition by appeal to parliamentary immunity.

"We are sure there are enough feeling Jews in Israel" to elect the Mannings, said Yosef Elbaum, a 39-year-old student who headed the effort. "We felt we had to help them."

The Mannings' case has created bitterness on both sides. Friends and relatives of the bomb victims believe that Israel has dragged its feet under pressure from supporters of the Mannings. Defenders of the couple believe that the United States wants a scapegoat for unsolved murders.

"It's a high priority [for the FBI] to go after Jews who don't act the way Jews are supposed to," said Samuel A. Abady, a New York attorney who has represented Mr. Manning. "Their evidence is slim to none."

"The Israeli government is delaying, and the U.S. government is not pushing hard enough," said Sami Odeh, the brother of Alex M. Odeh, slain director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Santa Ana. "I don't want revenge. I just want lTC criminals behind bars."

Mr. Manning is a Los Angeles-area high school dropout who served less than a year in the Army before he was discharged in 1970 as "not able to adjust" to military life. The burly 20-year-old joined the radical Jewish Defense League soon after leaving the Army.

In 1972, Mr. Manning was sentenced to three years' probation for bombing the Los Angeles home of Arab activist Mohammed Shaath.

Through the Jewish Defense League, Mr. Manning met Rochelle Ida, a legal secretary who put out the organization's newsletters, and they married. U.S. prosecutors allege that both of their fingerprints were on the package that contained the bomb that killed Patricia Wilkerson on July 17, 1980.

It was a strange case. Prosecutors contended in federal court that the Mannings sent the bomb to a businesswoman named Brenda Adams in Manhattan Beach, Calif., because an associate of theirs was involved in a real estate dispute with the woman. The argument was over $4,500 and clear title to a modest house Mrs. Adams had purchased.

The Mannings, who traveled often to Israel, moved here sometime after 1981, according to their Jerusalem attorney, Yair Golan. In 1988, Mrs. Manning visited the United States and was arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport.

She was tried in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles along with the business associate, Hawthorne W. Ross, whom the Mannings met in the JDL. But the jury deadlocked 6-6 over a verdict, the case was declared a mistrial and Mrs. Manning promptly returned to Israel before the government moved to retry her.

Mr. Abady, in a telephone interview from New York, contends that the prosecution of Mrs. Manning was an attempt by authorities to lure Mr. Manning back to the United States to stand trial in that and other bombings.

"It was kind of despicable. They held his wife as a hostage," said the attorney.

FBI officials have stated publicly that they suspect Mr. Manning and two other men in the Odeh killing. Alex Odeh had defended the Palestinian Liberation Organization in a television interview Oct. 10, 1985. The next day, he opened the door to his Santa

Ana office, springing a tripwire that detonated a bomb that killed him.

FBI officials have said that the bomb was similar to one used two months earlier that killed Tscherim Scobzokov, a former Nazi living in Patterson, N.J., and one that exploded in September 1985 on the front steps of another alleged Nazi, Elmars Sprogis, in Brentwood, N.Y. That bomb severed the legs of a nearby pedestrian.

When the United States sought the return from Israel of the Mannings several years ago, the couple moved to Kiryat Arba, an enclave of radical settlers near Hebron in the Israeli-occupied territories. The U.S. government did not ask the Israelis to arrest them there because it might imply recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the territories.

According to Mr. Abady, the scrambling of alliances in the gulf war prompted the U.S. government to drop its squeamishness over the location of the arrest. The Mannings were seized in Kiryat Arba on March 24, 1991.

A lower court in Israel ordered the Mannings extradited to the United States last June. But the order, now on appeal to the Israel Supreme Court, prompted protests by ultra-Orthodox and right-wing groups.

Rabbi Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party attempted to block the extradition in the Knesset, two other rabbis published newspaper advertisements opposing it and gun-toting settlers held demonstrations on the Mannings' behalf.

"Jewish law says you can't extradite a Jew to the Gentiles," said Noam Federman, a member of the extremist anti-Arab Kach organization. "I'm sure Manning will get a Knesset seat. A lot of religious people will vote for him, and then they won't be able to extradite him."

"The judge here said Israel has become a safe haven for criminals," Sami Odeh said in a telephone interview from Orange, near Los Angeles. "I think something ought to be done about it."

"It's clear the Israeli government is dragging its feet," said Albert Mokhiber, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League in Washington and a close friend of the slain Mr. Odeh. "They haven't allowed U.S. law enforcement agents to even interview the suspects."

Dean St. Dennis, a spokesman for the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, said: "From our viewpoint, the case has progressed normally as any such case would under Israeli laws and procedures." He added that "there have been no delays by the United States in trying to obtain the extradition."

As to the possibility that the Mannings' candidacy would affect the case, Mr. St. Dennis said the Justice Department "would have no comment on that."

Dean Dunlavey, the assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles handling the Manning case, said, "I've been very pleased with the cooperation we've gotten from the Israeli government."

Ruth Rabin, chief attorney for the international division of the Israeli state attorney's office, noted that the United States has made no formal request to extradite the Mannings on any but the Wilkerson killing.

To prosecute them for any other case would require a new extradition hearing, even if they are sent back to the United States to stand trial for Mrs. Wilkerson's death, she said.

"We were not dragging our feet," Ms. Rabin said. The Mannings' appeal is expected to be ruled on soon, she said.

Mr. Golan, the Mannings' Jerusalem attorney, said the couple's Knesset candidacy could create "complications" for the case. But Ms. Rabin said that would be true only if they win a seat.

"I'm not going to worry about it yet. We'll cross that bridge when it happens," she said.

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