Analysis |

What Israel Must Do Before Detained Israeli Couple Becomes Turkey's Hostages

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, in September.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, in September.Credit: Sputnik/Vladimir Smirnov/Pool via REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“The couple photographed [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s home; they focused on the house and marked it,” said Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu at a press conference. “The prosecutor’s office estimates that they committed a crime of military and political espionage, but the court will make the decision in the future.”

This statement does not bode well.

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The initial working assumption that Turkish police and intelligence experts would realize within a few hours or days that this was a mistake, or an innocent photo that thousands of tourists and Turkish citizens take every day, proved false. The extension of Mordi and Natalie Oknin’s detention, their separate interrogations, and the long duration of their arrest – almost a week – indicate an intention to send the couple through the Turkish judicial system, or at least to make Israel sweat.

A Turkish political source told Haaretz early in the week that he estimates that the couple will be released as early as this week, because the affair seems to have become inflated “disproportionately.” But on Wednesday, he already expressed doubt over whether the process would end in the coming days.

“The problem is that there’s competition among the Turkish intelligence organizations on the matter of exposing the threats against Turkey, and how to handle them,” a Turkish journalist explained to Haaretz. “Police intelligence is not subordinate to general intelligence. The former is the responsibility of Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, and the other intelligence groups are controlled by Hakan Fidan, and they don’t always see eye to eye regarding the method of operation.”

Fidan, head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, has a good relationship with the Mossad and Israel’s intelligence chiefs. According to reports in the Turkish media, the previous Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, had close ties with Fidan, which included meetings and intelligence cooperation. Soylu, on the other hand, is a politician. In 2018 the U.S. government imposed sanctions against him and the justice minister, due to their part in the arrest of the American pastor Andrew Brunson.

Brunson was arrested in 2016 on suspicion of being involved in the failed coup against Erdogan, but for lack of evidence of his involvement he was accused instead of espionage and aiding terrorism. Only the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to impose economic sanctions against Turkey in August 2018 caused Turkey to try Brunson two months later. He was sentenced to time served and released immediately afterwards.

The relationship between Fidan and Soylu is far from ideal. Both see themselves as worthy successors to Erdogan, but Soylu’s status suffered recently after one of the heads of the Turkish mafia publicized a series of videos in which he accused him of corruption.

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

The arrest of Turkish citizens and foreigners on trumped-up charges is a familiar and frightening phenomenon. Soylu himself reported early in the year that over 25,000 people are imprisoned in Turkish prisons for being connected to the movement of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Many of them have not been tried, and it’s not clear when and whether they will be.

As opposed to the daily reports in the Turkish media about the arrest of people suspected of belonging to or helping Gulen’s organization, which is defined as a terror organization, the arrest of the Oknins, like the exposure of the Israeli “espionage network” in October, is under an almost total media blackout. Although there is no specific order to refrain from reporting on the affair, any report regarding intelligence and state security endangers the reporters unless they received a permit.

This silence invites a series of guesses regarding the true motives behind the decision to arrest and perhaps prosecute the Israeli couple. The personal and political tension between Fidan – “Erdogan’s confidant” who prefers a quiet, diplomatic and practicable solution of conflicts and affairs – and Soylu, who presents himself as the leader of the battle against terror, may provide one explanation.

Another assessment is that Turkey wants to leverage the arrest to gain a diplomatic or intelligence achievement in return for releasing the couple. But this analysis suffers from several flaws: There is already intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Israel, and increasing it does not depend on blackmail but on coordinating interests.

On the diplomatic side, since the end of last year Turkey has been trying to improve its relations with Israel, and Erdogan even changed his tone and proposed a candidate for Turkish ambassador to Israel, whom Israel rejected. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is not a fan of Turkey and is not enthusiastic about renewing ties with the country. Turkey is very interested in ties with Israel, because it is simultaneously fostering diplomatic ties with Egypt, which have been severed since President Abdul al-Fattah al-Sissi came to power in 2013 after ousting Egypt’s previous president, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey believes that renewing relations with Israel would promote ties with Egypt, which would open a bridgehead to Africa for Turkey. Meanwhile, Erdogan scored an important diplomatic success with a renewal of diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, whose ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, is expected to arrive in Turkey for a first royal visit on November 24.

We can assume that Israel has asked the UAE to intervene for the release of the Oknins, and there are already some people who hope Erdogan will release them as a gesture to his important guest in honor of the renewal of relations. In this matter, Turkey can expect Israel to request mediation by Russia, the United States and European countries, and in doing so give Erdogan credit in countries that are far more significant to him than Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s request to maintain media silence is apparently meant to limit the story of the arrest to the Turkish-Israeli legal arena rather than turning it into an international issue, thereby playing into Erdogan’s hands. This approach is likely to be beneficial only if it turns out that the Mossad chief and other Israeli representatives are able to persuade the Turkish administration to climb down from their tall tree.

But if Erdogan intends to exploit the affair for his diplomatic needs, and as time passes and public pressure in Israel increases, there will be no choice but to adopt an active public approach. Erdogan has already proven that he does not get upset by international pressure, even when it comes from great powers like the United States and Germany. He rejects and scorns the demands to improve human rights in his country, he insults heads of state who demanded that he release Turkish philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala, and he threatens internet surfers who show disrespect for him on social media.

But in a series of cases, international pressure was able to chalk up achievements with Erdogan. The Israeli government must decide until when it will continue to conduct negotiations in secret and when to start to galvanize public opinion. This decision must come before Turkey decides to prosecute the couple and turn them into hostages, a status that in any case would require Israel to recruit international efforts.

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