Israel Believes Couple's Release Signals Warmer Turkey Relations

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Natalie and Mordi Oknin arriving in Israel, this morning.
Natalie and Mordi Oknin arriving in Israel, this morning.Credit: Twitter account of Naftali Bennett

Even before the private jet returning the Israeli couple that had been detained in Turkey landed in Ben-Gurion Airport, officials who had negotiated with Turkey emphasized that Israel wasn’t required to give anything in exchange for the couple’s release.

“There was no talk of price,” said a diplomat involved in the talks with aides of Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan. “But there will be gestures of one kind or another down the road.”

Jerusalem is waiting to see if Erdogan will take advantage of this opportunity to make certain requests. The general assumption is that releasing Natalie and Mordi Oknin will “unclog” relations between the two states, leading to stronger ties.

Officials involved in the release couldn’t say what ultimately led to Turkey’s decision to let the couple go. Israel gave guarantees that they were not spies and the investigation material gathered against the two did not contain significant evidence. Israel also believed that extensive media coverage of the detention of innocent tourists could deal a devastating blow to tourism in Turkey and cause collateral economic damage.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, yesterday.Credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

Erdogan has long signaled his desire to improve relations with Israel. He announced this at the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s term as premier, and used the change of government to demonstrate this again. In a surprising telephone call in July, Erdogan congratulated President Isaac Herzog on his appointment, urging him to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in energy, tourism and technology.

“The presidents attribute considerable importance to the continued ties and dialogue, despite all the disagreements,” said a statement issued by the President’s Residence in Jerusalem after the conversation.

Presumably, Erdogan sees tightening ties with Israel as a means to get closer to the United States and Western countries, an opportunity to improve his regional status, increase his influence on the Palestinians and bring in tourism and business to Turkey.

Israel has watched his moves so far with deep suspicion. The shoddy relations between the two states had deteriorated during Erdogan’s rule, which was marked by harsh statements against Israel’s leadership.

Among the major causes of conflict were the Turkish flotilla Mavi Marmara to Gaza in 2010, and the humiliating meeting that then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon held with the Turkish ambassador.

Diplomats have raised fears in recent months that strengthening ties with Turkey at this time will harm Israel’s close relations with Greece and Cyprus, and hinder its ability to advance the Abraham Accords. Now Israel believes the Oknin couple’s release may improve relations and perhaps even lead to reappointing ambassadors in the two states.

Prime Minister Naftaili Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Herzog thanked Erdogan on Thursday for his personal involvement in freeing the Oknins, with Herzog and Bennett holding telephone conversations with him.

Erdogan reiterated the importance he attributes to Turkey’s relations with Israel, saying they were “extremely important for peace, security and stability in the Middle East.”

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