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Turkey’s arrest of Israeli tourists causes alarm

What happened:  A Turkish court has extended the remand of two Israeli tourists being accused of spying for Israel.

  • The Israeli couple Natali and Mordy Oknin, bus drivers from Modiin, were arrested on Thursday outside the Media Tower, the tallest building in Istanbul, for illegally taking photos of Turkish President Erdogan’s private residence.
  • Prime Minister Naftali Bennett related to the incident at the start of yesterday’s cabinet meeting, saying: “These are two innocent civilians who have been mistakenly caught up in a complex situation. I spoke yesterday with the family and we are doing everything to resolve the issue. I asked that the family stay strong, despite the great difficulty. We are with you. Beyond this, it would not be proper to expand at the moment.”
  • The lawyer for the couple Nir Yaslovizh, told Israeli media that “every effort is being made to bring them back to Israel. We’re not operating under a stopwatch … we are doing all we can to bring them back to Israel ASAP.”
  • President Isaac Herzog also spoke with relatives of the couple and he stressed that they had nothing at all to do with Israel’s intelligence community and said he believes they are innocent.

Context: Israel is operating on a number of tracks to secure their swift release. The Israeli embassy in Ankara is liaising with the Turkish foreign ministry, whilst both the Mossad and the National Security Adviser are working with their Turkish counterparts too.

  • At this stage Israel is hoping that quiet diplomatic efforts pay off. Prime Minister Bennett instruct the cabinet ministers yesterday to keep a low media profile, so as not to provide a pretext to exacerbate the situation.
  • The Israelis are still trying to clarify if this was a case of over-zealous local policing or a political decision made from above. Though the extension of their remand as oppose to swift deportation could suggest the latter. 
  • Israeli analysts have speculated that Turkish President Erdogan was looking for an excuse to distract attention from his government’s failures and falling popularity. Erdogan faces plenty of internal pressure, high unemployment, inflation and a weakening currency. Manufacturing an international crises with other countries is a recurring tactic of his.
  • Israel-Turkish relations have been strained over the last few years, largely as a result of Erdogan’s Islamification and his ties to Hamas. However, in July, there appeared efforts of a rapprochement when Erdogan called newly-elected President Herzog and congratulated him.
  • The Turks could also be trying to exploit the situation to make a range of demands that are on their long-term agenda.  These include Turkish NGOs operating in the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, or issues relating to Gaza.
  • Turkey also views with suspicion Israel’s expanding relations with Greece and Cyprus, which are at an all-time high.
  • Last month Erdogan tried to manufacture a different crisis surrounding the arrest of 15 “Mossad agents,” who were arrested for allegedly spying on Hamas.  All of the people arrested were Muslim, mostly Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip.

Looking ahead:  Natali and Mordy Oknin’s lawyer is expected to file an appeal to the court to try and reduce their remand after it was extended by 20 days yesterday.  As yet, no date for the trial has been set.

  • The next few days are considered crucial to find a diplomatic solution and have them repatriated to Israel.  If diplomacy were to fail, it could lead to a deeper crisis between the countries.
  • The fear is that if this goes to trial, they could face fabricated charges and imprisonment for several years.
  • Turkey has been a popular destination for Israeli tourists. Israel could change their travel advice and declare Turkey a dangerous destination.

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