Erdogan’s role in release of Israeli couple could signal improving ties — reports

Turkish officials tell Israeli media that ambassadors could be returned to respective countries after 3.5 years

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Composite/AP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Composite/AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in securing the release of an Israeli couple held for photographing his palace in Istanbul could signal a strengthening of ties between the countries, officials in Turkey told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster Thursday.

According to the report, the incident may even lead to the return of ambassadors in each country, after over three years.

“Turkey wants to improve relations and we feel Israel is also interested,” the officials were cited as saying to Kan.

Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Bennett spoke with Erdogan by phone to thank him for the release of the couple. And a joint statement from Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid announcing the Oknins’ release thanked Erdogan.

“We thank the president of Turkey and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” the statement said.

Separately, Channel 13 news cited an official saying Erdogan’s handling of the matter raised the likelihood of improving bilateral ties, which have been at a low in recent years.

Natali and Mordy Oknin (center), an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, arrive at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A Turkish official told Kan the country could have held the Israeli couple for a long time.

“We were a hairsbreadth away from a lengthy detention for the Oknins,” an unnamed Turkish official was quoted as saying to Kan.

The couple was arrested in Istanbul last week after they photographed Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul while on tour and sent the photo to their family. Media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the palace.

Initial hopes that the misunderstanding would quickly be cleared up were dashed last week when a judge ordered them held for an additional 20 days on suspicion of espionage.

The husband and wife were held separately and granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.

The delicate diplomacy to secure their release was complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

The development ended a saga that had involved concrete fears the pair would be in Turkish jail for many years.

Turkey, once a strong Muslim ally of Israel, has become a geopolitical foe under Erdogan.

Israel and Turkey formally ended a six-year diplomatic rift in 2016. The spat began in 2010 when 10 Turkish activists were killed in a violent confrontation with Israeli naval commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara ship that aimed to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel said the soldiers were violently attacked by those on board.

Then in May 2018, after violent protests on the Gaza border in which over 60 Palestinians, most of them members of Hamas and other terror groups, were killed, Erdogan placed the blame for the deaths squarely on Israel, calling it a “terrorist state” that commits “genocide.”

Turkey then recalled its ambassador and expelled Israel’s ambassador, Eitan Na’eh, and consul in Istanbul.

In December 2020, Erdogan said he wished to improve ties with Israel after years of criticism. “Our relations with Israel on intelligence have not ceased anyway, they are still continuing,” Erdogan said during a press conference. “We have some difficulties with the people at the top.”

After United States President Joe Biden’s election, Turkey said it would appoint a new ambassador to Israel, in an effort to strengthen ties with Washington.

Tal Schneider and agencies contributed to this report.

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