image Photo: Flash90, Reuters

Turkey frees Israeli couple arrested for spying

Natalie and Mordi Oaknin returned home this morning after being jailed for 9 days after photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s residence while vacationing in Istanbul.

By Erin Viner

The release follows a concerted campaign by the offices of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog, joined by the Foreign Ministry and the Mossad intelligence agency.

The latest incident follows the arrests of 15 Arab suspects by Turkish authorities on 7 October for allegedly spying on behalf of the Mossad.

The Oaknins were taken into custody by Turkish police on 9 November following a tip by a waitress who overheard them discussing a picture the had taken of the presidential palace from an observation deck outside a restaurant at Istanbul’s Camlica Tower – which is a telecommunications center and the tallest building in Europe. A Turkish friend who had joined the visitors was also arrested on charges of political and military espionage, said the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Disregarding the police recommendation that they be deported; prosecutors charged the Israeli couple with espionage and a court ordered they be remanded for at least 20 days last Friday.

Israeli officials had consistently denied the spying allegations and maintained that the Oaknins, who are drivers for the Egged bus company, were innocent civilians. Prime Minister Bennett met several times with the captives’ family members, and Jerusalem dispatched several senior envoys to Turkey to seek their release. The breakthrough reportedly came after Mossad Director David Barnea personally assured his Turkish counterpart in a telephone call that the Oaknins are not Israeli spies and have no connection with Israeli intelligence operations.

A gag order on the Oaknin’s release was in place until they arrived on Israeli soil this morning at 6 AM aboard a special flight chartered by the Foreign Ministry. They were later photographed from the balcony of their Modi’in home in central Israel, surrounded by friends and family.

“Thank you to the entire nation of Israel. Thank you to everyone who helped and supported and got us freed,” Natalie called to a crowd of supporters.

Turkish officials offered no immediate comment, although Israeli Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid thanked Erdoğan and the Turkish government “for the cooperation.” They also expressed their respect to the Oknin family for their strength during this complicated time and for their cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, they conveyed special thanks to President Herzog for his efforts to help bring them home.

The Oknins’ case had become a cause célèbre in Israel. Relations between the two countries have long been strained due to the strident pro-Palestinian posture of Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted government,

Onetime warm bilateral ties between the Jewish State and its strong Muslim ally were severely damaged by the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident when 10 pro-Palestinian extremists from Turkey were killed after they violently attacked Israeli commandos trying to enforce the naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Israel later paid Turkey $20 million in compensation as a key component of a deal signed in June 2016 to restore ties.

The row widened again when Erdoğan condemned Israel as a “terrorist state” after 60 Palestinian rioters believed affiliated with the Islamist-Hamas terror group were killed in 2018 by the IDF during violent protests on the Gaza border.

Israel also accused Turkey of giving passports to a dozen Hamas members in Istanbul in August 2020.

The incident could paradoxically help mend the bilateral rift.

Israeli President Herzog spoke on the phone with his Turkish counterpart earlier today. According to an official statement from his office, Herzog thanked Erdoğan “for his personal involvement and contribution to the Oknin couple’s return home to Israel.” President Erdoğan was said to have “emphasized the importance that he attaches to relations with Israel, which he said were of key importance to the peace, stability, and security of the Middle East,” added the statement. Moreover, President Herzog expressed his intent for the 2 countries “to hold a comprehensive dialogue on bilateral and regional issues related to regional peace,” and both leaders agreed to remain in contact.

In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Bennett is expected to hold his first-ever talks with Turkish President Erdoğan later today – which would mark the first public conversation between leaders of the 2 nations in 13 years.

A possible Jerusalem-Ankara rapprochement is being driven by the prospect of lucrative Mediterranean gas deals, in addition to simmering tensions and increasing isolation from Europe over Turkish provocations.