Couple’s ongoing detention likely means Turkish intel still fishing for Israeli info

October arrests of 15 suspected Mossad spies didn’t get Ankara what it wanted; now it may think it’s found a better bargaining chip

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Mordy and Natali Oknin were arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan's palace, November 2021. (Screenshot)
Mordy and Natali Oknin were arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan's palace, November 2021. (Screenshot)

Turkey’s arrest and detention of an Israeli tourist couple last week, and its insistence on treating them as supposed spies, would appear to run counter to the direction of the country’s foreign policy over the past year.

Having spent most of the last decade picking fights with regional rivals like Greece and Egypt — and, of course, Israel — Ankara has found itself increasingly isolated of late, with Joe Biden, a personal adversary of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now in the White House.

As he did with Europe and Egypt, once it was clear Biden was going to be the next United States president, Erdogan decided he’d better change his tune toward Israel.

“Our heart desires that we can move our relations with them to a better point,” the Turkish leader said in December. Reports have since emerged that Turkey could return its ambassador to Tel Aviv.

In July, Erdogan congratulated Isaac Herzog on being sworn into his new role as Israel’s president, and noted the importance of relations between the two countries for the sake of regional stability. A spokesman for Erdogan’s AKP party said that in the wake of the call, a “framework emerged” to improve ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.

And yet, Turkey is now holding two Israeli bus drivers, couple Mordy and Natali Oknin, on suspicion of espionage, for photographing Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul last week.

No part of the Turkish claims seems likely. Israel has far more sophisticated ways of attaining photographs of landmark buildings — which doesn’t seem like an especially pressing intelligence priority — than sending two Israeli citizens to openly take pictures in front of them, while speaking Hebrew and posting details of their trip on social media.

Even if Turkish authorities were initially suspicious, the fact that they didn’t release the couple — or at least expel them from the country — after an initial interrogation points to this episode being a piece of a larger puzzle.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures at a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, on September 21, 2020. (Adem Altan/AFP)

“The incident contradicts Turkey’s on-and-off overtures to Israel since mid-2020, which were met positively — yet also with skepticism — on the Israeli side,” said Selin Nasi, London Representative of the Ankara Policy Center.

Searching for a bargaining chip

The arrest could have been orchestrated by elements in Turkey’s security establishment that are trying to make it harder for Erdogan to repair ties with Israel.

But the most compelling explanation for Turkey’s behavior ties the detention to an incident in October in which Turkey claimed it had arrested 15 Mossad agents — none of them Israelis — in the country.

“It seems that in exchange for the release of the 15, Turkey demanded something,” posited Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “And Israel apparently ignored them, apparently said, ‘What do we care? They’re not Israelis. We don’t know them.'”

In order to increase the pressure on Israel to cough up what Turkish intelligence was after, according to this perspective, Ankara found a Jewish Israeli couple to arrest, figuring they would make for more valuable bargaining chips.

Photos of 15 men alleged to be Mossad agents, published by the Turkish Sabah daily on October 25, 2021. (Screenshot)

One analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that although no one can say for sure, Turkey’s MIT state intelligence organization may well have wanted the Mossad to share certain information.

Though the exact nature of that intelligence is not about to be shared with the public, it is clear that a breach between the two intelligence agencies would be a new low for bilateral relations.

In his December remarks hoping for improved ties, Erdogan even stressed that the intelligence relationship between the sides had never ceased, despite the political bad blood.

Nasi agreed with this assessment.

“Intelligence sharing between Turkey and Israel has more or less continued for decades, even when the diplomatic ties had seemingly hit rock bottom,” she said. “When assessed in line with the Turkish authorities’ arrest of 15 men last month who allegedly worked for Israel’s Mossad agency, there seems to be a serious crack in the intelligence cooperation which should be read as a further erosion of mutual trust.”

Amid this new crisis in relations that has seen what appears to be an innocent couple used as pawns, there have been a few signs of hope. For instance, the Oknins’ lawyer met them in prison, and Israeli diplomats spent significant time with the couple on Tuesday.

But there is one aspect of the developing story that is perhaps most encouraging, according to Cohen. The story has largely remained out of Turkey’s print newspapers, with the publications keeping coverage limited to their online editions.

This gives Turkey more flexibility in cutting a deal with Israel, Cohen argued. “In Turkey, the print media has a larger effect on the masses. When it isn’t in print media and doesn’t become a public issue, decision-makers have the luxury of making non-populist decisions.”

Moreover, he added, what is being written in non-Islamist media is relatively moderate.

The overall thrust of Turkey’s current foreign policy is to mend bridges with regional powers, and that remains the case. Though it seems to want something from Israel, it does not want to torpedo any chance of improved ties.

“Turkey has more to gain and benefit from burying the hatchet and normalizing her relations with the countries in the region, including Israel,” Nasi stated.

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