Turkey told Israel: 'Let's see how we can resolve this'

Local arrest that was spiraling into crisis: Turkey’s detention, release of Israelis

Turkey said to tell Israel no state role in arrests; Herzog thanks Erdogan for ‘personal involvement’ in return of couple held on spying claims, talks of holding peace ‘dialogue’

Natali and Mordy Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, speak to journalists hours after they were released at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Natali and Mordy Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, speak to journalists hours after they were released at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The arrest and detention of an Israeli couple last week in Turkey on accusations of espionage appears to have been a local law enforcement move that ballooned into a bilateral incident.

Natali and Mordy Oknin were arrested last week on accusations of espionage after they photographed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace, as thousands of other tourists are said to do.

Israel swiftly and firmly denied they were engaged in spying, saying that the couple, both Egged bus drivers, were just tourists.

But there had been concrete fears that the couple could spend many years in prison after a Turkish court instructed that they be detained for a further 20 days and a Turkish minister publicly accused them of being spies.

However, according to the Walla news site, Ibrahim Kalin, a close adviser to Erdogan, informed the charge d’affaires of the Israeli embassy in Turkey, Irit Lillian, that there had been no state motive behind the incident and that it was not coming from the top levels of government.

Instead, Kalin reportedly said, it was a local incident that had escalated.

“Let’s see how we can resolve this,” Turkish officials reportedly told Israel.

Although his interior minister on Wednesday said the pair were suspected of espionage, and that “the court will decide” on their fate, Erdogan did not speak publicly about the case.

Ibrahim Kalin, chief advisor to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gestures as he talks to The Associated Press in Istanbul, October 19, 2019. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

From the start, Israeli officials sought to resolve the issue quietly, fearing that a diplomatic escalation would only complicate the affair, and believing it was an incident that had simply happened rather than being orchestrated.

“Erdogan understood that there is no need to enter into a conflict with Israel and that he could also gain some benefit from the affair,” a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official told Walla.

Foreign Ministry officials said they stressed to Turkish authorities that the crisis had to end before it ballooned any further.

Mordy (R) and Natali (L) Oknin on a flight back from Istanbul accompanied by Foreign Ministry officials Rina Dejersi and Haim Levi on November 18, 2021 (Foreign Ministry)

Despite the intensive efforts, there were no direct top-level diplomatic contacts between the two countries, officials stressed.

Officials noted that Israel’s swift denial that the couple were spies — which came from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and President Isaac Herzog — had a positive influence.

During the negotiations, Herzog spoke by phone with senior Turkish officials, but not with Erdogan himself.

Herzog eventually spoke with Erdogan on Thursday afternoon and thanked him for his “personal involvement and contribution to the Oknin couple’s return home to Israel,” according to a statement from the President’s Residence.

President Isaac Herzog (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) (AP)

According to the statement, Erdogan “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.”

The statement added that Herzog “welcomed the desire for Turkey and Israel to hold a comprehensive dialogue on bilateral and regional issues related to regional peace,” and that the two leaders agreed to remain in contact.

Bennett is also expected to speak with Erdogan.

Israeli officials have insisted that Jerusalem has not been required to give Ankara anything in return for the release. However, media pundits assessed that Israel will make some sort of gesture.

Though Israel and Turkey have diplomatic ties, their relations are strained and neither country has an ambassador posted, which had initially complicated the process.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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