Israeli efforts to repatriate the couple detained in Turkey on suspicion of espionage for photographing a presidential residence could be complicated by the lack of formal diplomatic channels between the two countries.
Natalie and Mordi Oknin are being held by Turkish authorities after they were accused of “political and military espionage” by an Istanbul court, which decided that they must held until their trial. Turkish officials have not made any demands in exchange for their release, nor used the arrest to apply pressure on Israel.
In a statement on Monday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said it had decided to send Rina Djerassi, the head of the ministry’s consular division, to Istanbul “to strengthen” Israel’s diplomatic staff and “advance a number of consular issues.”
Media reports interpreted her trip as an attempt to resolve the situation in agreement with Turkish authorities. This step is needed in light of the current state of relations between the two countries.
Ankara and Jerusalem both withdrew their respective ambassadors following the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.
Yet despite the lack of high-level diplomatic relations, Israel has retained several back-channel communications methods with Ankara which it could potentially use to resolve the crisis. These include American Jewish organizations, Arab lawmakers and intelligence officials.
Over the years, delegations from U.S. Jewish groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have met frequently with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both in Ankara and on the sidelines of diplomatic events in the United States. These organizations also have close ties to Israel and have in the past been asked to deliver messages between the two sides.
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Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who specializes in Turkish foreign policy, said that despite this history, the “Jewish American back channel” probably won’t help in this instance.
“It’s a lost case for Jewish organizations – it’s not a good back channel,” she said, noting that no major American Jewish organizations met with Turkish groups on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly in New York.
While relations between the Mossad and its Turkish counterparts are only a shadow of what they were in the 1990s, there are still ties and even occasional consultations between high-ranking intelligence officials. This makes the Israeli intelligence agency a viable conduit for talks regarding the return of the Oknins, whom the Israeli government said do not work for any intelligence agency.
Arab Israeli lawmakers are another potential back channel, and several have interceded with Turkey on various issues in the past.
In 2019, a delegation of Knesset members and representatives from the United Arab List and Ta’al met with Erdogan in Istanbul to plead for three Israeli Arabs who were arrested after arriving in Turkey for a kidney transplant. According to Turkish law, it is illegal to receive a kidney from a donor who is not immediate family.
Following the meeting, Erdogan agreed to release one of the three and to drop the charges against the other two who were detained.
The following year, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi worked with Turkish authorities to arrange for the repatriation of Palestinian students stuck in Turkey due to COVID-related travel restrictions, Turkish news agency Anadolu reported at the time.
United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas is “part of the governing coalition and he definitely has contacts” with Ankara, Lindenstrauss said.
However, she added that despite the lack of high-level diplomatic representation, Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Ankara is an experienced operator who has previously served as a full ambassador. According to Lindenstrauss, existing diplomatic channels – truncated as they are – are still “sufficient” to resolve the crisis.
Lindenstrauss noted that Turkey has been trying to improve relations with Israel over the past year, and that Erdogan had a “fruitful” conversation with Israeli President Isaac Herzog following the latter’s election earlier this year.
She concluded by saying she believes Turkey’s decision to detain the Oknins makes little sense and will likely harm tourism from Israel at a time when the Turks are looking to bolster tourism and increase access to foreign currency. “It’s an own goal,” Lindenstrauss said.