An Israeli couple in their 40s was arrested in Turkey on Friday – along with a Turkish citizen – on charges of spying after they reportedly photographed the presidential palace of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The couple, Mordi and Natali Oknin, deny any wrongdoing and the Israeli government rejects the accusations that the two are spies. A Turkish court decided that the Israeli couple would be remanded in custody for an additional 20 days.
Jerusalem fears that Turkey is exploiting the controversy for political gain.
After being in free fall for years, Turkish-Israeli relations improved slightly after Turkey appointed a new ambassador to Israel in 2020. However, relations between Ankara and Jerusalem remain tense due to Turkey’s support of the terrorist organization Hamas. The latest controversy risks undermining bilateral relations between the two countries.
Turkish authorities are considering possible charges against the Israeli couple ranging from espionage to the less serious offense of harming Turkey’s national security, Israeli Channel 12 reported on Saturday evening. The Turkish authorities have reportedly still not given any information to the Israeli government about the arrest.
The arrest has become a diplomatic headache reaching all the way to Israel’s top political echelon. During a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stressed that the Jewish state’s government is doing its outmost to secure the release of the Israeli couple.
“They are two innocent citizens who accidentally got into a complicated situation,” Bennett said. “I spoke with the family yesterday and we are doing everything we can to resolve the issue. I ask the family, despite the great difficulty, to be strong. We are with you. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be right to expand [on the matter] at the moment.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid denied that the Israeli couple belonged to an Israeli intelligence agency and said that Israel’s Foreign Ministry was working intensively on securing the release of the two detained Israeli citizens.
In October, Turkish authorities arrested some 15 individuals who were accused of spying for the Jewish state. Israeli authorities denied those charges as well. At the time, Ram Barak, a former deputy Mossad chief and currently the head of Israel’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee suggested that Turkish authorities were publishing false information as part of its efforts to display intelligence successes.
Nir Yaslovitzh, the Israeli couple’s attorney, believes the Turkish court will eventually release and deport the two Israeli citizens, plus ban them from visiting Turkey for at least six months.
In a letter addressed to Lapid, Yaslovitzh urged Israeli authorities to intervene on behalf of the Israeli couple.
“It was an innocent act done in good faith, as a tourist act, and not as a ‘criminal’ act that justifies such an abusive act of detention,” he stated.
It is not the first time that Israeli citizens have been at the center of diplomatic controversies. In April 2019, the dual American-Israeli citizen Naama Issachar was arrested in Moscow on charges of drug trafficking.
Russian authorities reportedly found 9 grams of marijuana in her luggage and the 26-year-old was subsequently sentenced to seven years in Russian prison.
However, following intense high-profile Israeli diplomatic efforts, which involved former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Issachar was eventually released from prison in January 2020. Netanyahu and his wife Sara traveled to Moscow with Issachar’s mother to pick up the jailed Israeli and fly her back home after a press conference with Putin.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.