An Israeli couple was arrested by Turkish police on Friday in Istanbul for taking pictures of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s residence while touring the country. They have been charged with political and military espionage. Israeli officials have expressed concern in Israel’s media that Erdoğan will try and exploit the Israeli government’s eagerness to free the two to exact political concessions.
Natalie and Mordy Oknin, identified as bus drivers from the city of Modi’in, were detained by Turkish police when staff at a restaurant inside Istanbul’s Küçük Çamlıca TV Radio Tower saw them photographing Erdoğan’s residence and alerted authorities. A Turkish citizen was also arrested for taking pictures of the president’s home and faces similar charges.
The couple was “grilled by officials of Istanbul’s chief public prosecutor’s office before being moved to a prison,” reported Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.
“The expectation was that they would be expelled to Israel with a condition that they couldn’t return to Turkey for a certain period,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), who specializes in Turkish foreign policy, told JNS. “What concerns Israel is the fact that instead of being expelled, they remained in custody. The sense is that the judicial system in Turkey is not completely independent and hence there is some political motive to keep them in custody.”
Comparisons are being made to the case of Naama Issachar, said Lindenstrauss. Issachar, a young Israeli woman, was arrested in Russia in April 2019 and sentenced to nine years in prison for allegedly carrying nine grams of marijuana in her luggage. She was released in January 2020, but only after then Israeli-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly made concessions to Russia.
The case of the Israeli couple in Istanbul has also reached the highest levels of Israel’s government with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leading off the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, saying, “First, I would like to comment on the arrests of the Oknin couple in Turkey. The foreign minister and I, and additional officials, dealt with this throughout the weekend. These are two innocent civilians who have been mistakenly caught up in a complex situation.”
An unnamed senior official told website N12 on Monday, “We are still working on understanding the incident. At the moment, we are not getting clear answers.”
Friction with Israel always helps Erdoğan domestically
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey and researcher at both the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Moshe Dayan Center, where he is co-editor of Turkeyscope, told JNS that the arrest of the Israeli tourists is even more egregious than that of Issachar in Russia, who was at least accused of carrying drugs. “In this case, we have a tourist couple taking pictures from an observation tower. It’s as if a couple went up to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and was arrested for taking pictures.”
Yanarocak said it wasn’t a coincidence that the couple was Israeli and expressed doubts about Turkish reports that a waiter overheard the couple say the name “Erdoğan,” prompting him to call the police. The waiter must have heard the name “Erdoğan” in any one of a number of languages. Why did he call the authorities when he heard the name spoken only by Hebrew speakers? posed Yanarocak.
Yanarocak surmised that this incident is a continuation of an earlier case last month in which Turkey arrested 15 alleged Mossad spies. The supposed agents, of Arab descent, were not Israeli citizens. They were accused of targeting Palestinian and Syrian students in Turkey receiving training in the defense industry.
Israel didn’t cave to Turkey’s demands in that instance (the exact demands are not known, but Yanarocak is certain they are related to intelligence issues). He said Turkey may use the two Israeli tourists to reassert those demands.
Lindenstrauss said she doesn’t feel that Turkey is in a strong position to make demands. “At the end of the day, Israel does have the upper hand. It’s created for itself alternatives to its relationship with Turkey. So today, compared to 10 years ago, Israel is much less in need of Ankara than it was previously.”
She noted that tourism, for example, is an important industry for Turkey with half a million Israelis visiting the country pre-pandemic. With the Turkish lira in decline, foreign currencies are still more important, she said, and this arrest will “definitely be a deterrent” to Israelis planning to visit.
Yanarocak said it’s possible that the reason behind Turkey’s actions outweighs a hit to its tourism industry. He noted there could be an element of domestic politics on top of the intelligence issues at play. Public support for Erdoğan and his allies is slipping, he said, and friction with Israel always helps Erdoğan domestically.
Both Yanarocak and Lindenstrauss said that the incident is being ignored by Turkey’s print media, which holds more influence than online outlets. Yanarocak said that’s a good thing. It means that Turkey’s government has room to maneuver and can release the Israeli couple if it chooses to without fear of awakening a strong public response.