A photo was their undoing. Natalie and Mordi Oknin from Israel shot it from the TV tower on their trip to Istanbul and forwarded it to their family at home via Whatsapp. The motif: the Dolmabahçe Palace, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan occasionally holds state receptions. The result: the two were arrested. The charge: political and military espionage.
The couple from Modi’in have been in Turkish custody for around a week, separated from each other and from other prisoners. At home, the relatives and now the whole nation worry about their well-being. Because from the Israeli point of view, two innocent tourists are being held here, both bus drivers by profession, who only wanted to relax for a few days in Istanbul. The fact that they are now sitting in a cell in Turkey therefore offers a good opportunity to further poison the already difficult relations between Israel and Turkey.
Because Erdoğan and Israel, that is a story full of hot topics. The previously prosperous relationship turned radically into the opposite when the freighter, which took off from Turkey with Erdoğan’s blessing, broke up in May 2010 blue Marmara prepared to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel’s navy stopped the ship, killing nine activists. Since then, Erdoğan has liked to profile himself as the patron saint of the Palestinians, verbally swearing up to defender the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and granting Hamas leaders shelter in Turkey.
Domestically, he can score points with it, but in terms of foreign policy, it permanently creates friction. Just a month ago, the Turkish authorities announced with Aplomb that they had taken down a cell belonging to the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad, which had been spying on Hamas in the country for years. Pictures of 15 suspected agents, all of Arab origin, have been featured prominently in the newspapers. And now the Oknins from Modi’in with their cell phone camera.
In Israel the waves are getting higher every day
The new incident seems to drown any hopes for relationship improvement. They germinated in the summer when Erdoğan called the newly elected Israeli President Isaac Herzog to congratulate him. The phone call lasted 40 minutes, the first at this level since 2013, and the general reading was that the Turkish head of state is seeking dialogue again.
After that, however, the silence broke out again – and in the current case this silence is even seen as a positive sign. The fact that Erdoğan has so far not said a word about the alleged new espionage case, that he has neither prejudged the Oknins nor demanded a price for their release, keeps the chance open for the time being to settle the case relatively quietly.
In Israel, however, the waves are getting higher every day. One after the other, President Herzog, Foreign Minister Jair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett phoned the families of the two detainees – and immediately let the public know. They are working “around the clock and at the highest level” to get the two off, explained Lapid. “You are two innocent citizens who just happened to get into a complicated situation,” said Bennett. In order to reassure the Turks once again that they are definitely not dealing with agents, Mossad boss David Barnea even called his Turkish counterpart personally at the beginning of the week.
However, no progress has been made towards release. In the meantime, however, at least the Israeli lawyer Nir Yaslovich was able to visit the imprisoned Mordi Oknin. Afterwards he reported “difficult conditions” and “many tears”. In the end, the lawyer said, he tried to at least give his client hope: “I promised him that I would take him home.”