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

May 24, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

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.

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