Israel Fears Turkey May Leverage Detention of Couple for Political Goals

No negotiations for the couple's release have been announced, but President Herzog, who has a close relationship with Turkish President Erdogan, is likely to be a key player if they occur

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Natalie and Mordi Oknin in Istanbul, last week.
Natalie and Mordi Oknin in Istanbul, last week.Credit: Facebook
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israeli officials are unsure whether Turkey's arrest of an Israeli couple, who are accused of espionage over photographs they took of a disused presidential residence, is a strictly legal matter or that Ankara intends to weaponize the case for a diplomatic dispute.

The couple, Natalie and Mordi Oknin of Modi'in, had their detention extended by 20 days on Friday after they photographed the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul from a ferry. Their lawyer, Nir Yaslovitzh, said Turkey's state prosecution was seeking to charge them with espionage.

State officials who examined the chain of events had difficulty over the weekend deciphering whether the arrest was motivated by Turkish national interests. Turkish officials have not made any demands for releasing the couple nor have they used the arrest to apply pressure on Israel. Moreover, Turkey has given hardly any information regarding the findings of the investigation which led to the decision to extend the arrest.

Israeli sources also suspect that the arrest is due to the Turkish security establishment's growing suspicion of Israeli espionage after the capture of fifteen Mossad agents last month who allegedly worked in the country for over a year in five different cells.

"It is only natural that any complaint involving a suspicion of spying on Erdogan on Turkish soil leads to an intense investigation. However, here we're dealing with the misfortune of two unlucky tourists who photographed a site that they didn't know is forbidden to photograph. Since the investigation is confidential, it is hard to know what it entailed and why the accusations haven't been dismissed yet," an Israeli official said.

In an unusual move, President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid released statements over the weekend officially proclaiming that the couple was not working for any Israeli security agency. Lapid said that he is in contact with the family and that his ministry has placed an urgent request to visit the couple.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with the couple's families on Saturday, updating them on Israel's efforts to return the two to the country and reach a solution as soon as possible.

It is too early to say whether the couple is merely a bargaining chip for Erdogan, and Israel has yet to identify any Turkish motive. "This arrest is unusual and does not seemingly serve any Turkish interests. The Turkish economy is in crisis; tourism is important to them," said Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Goren says that such behavior toward Israel is atypical of Turkey. "Using legal tools against Israel happened during the Marmara saga when lawsuits and arrest warrants were deployed. But acting against tourists is not something we've seen before and isn't in Erdogan's tool box for applying pressure," he said.   

Although no negotiations for the release of Natalie and Mordi Oknin have been announced, the talks would probably go through three separate channels. The first is President Herzog, who has already spoken with the couple's family and has said that he is working with the Foreign Ministry to bring the two home.

Herzog could be used as a direct contact in solving the crisis due to his relationship with Erdogan. The Turkish president called to congratulate Herzog after his inauguration last June, and the two discussed strengthening the Israeli-Turkish relationship after a long period of tensions in a phone call. 

The second channel is the Foreign Ministry, which is has ongoing communication with Turkish officials at different ranks and could also lower the flames. Another channel is the Defense Ministry, whose representatives have close connections with their Turkish counterparts.

According to Goren, even an isolated incident could turn into a diplomatic crisis in a matter of days. "It started as a local incident. The goal is to end it as such and not let it turn into a diplomatic one with strategic implications," he said, adding that there are only a few days to manage the situation. "If it gets complicated, we will hear much more aggressive Israeli statements in a few days."

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