Justice minister says Israelis held in Turkey were arrested ‘for no reason’

Gideon Sa’ar notes it’s not in interest of Turkish tourism for travelers to fear visiting the country; increased profile of case in Turkey raises concerns swift solution fading

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar leads a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar leads a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Wednesday that it is “clear to all” that there was no reason for Turkish authorities to arrest an Israeli couple who were visiting the country as tourists.

Mordy and Natali Oknin were detained in Istanbul last week on suspicion of espionage for photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace. The couple insists they did not know it was illegal to photograph the palace.

Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, are Israeli spies.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Sa’ar declined to comment directly on remarks from Turkey’s interior minister the day before in which he asserted that the Israelis were spying.

“It is clear to everyone that the Israelis were arrested for no reason,” Sa’ar told Kan’s radio station.

“We are working under the leadership of the Foreign Ministry to have them released as soon as possible,” Sa’ar said, noting that President Isaac Herzog is also involved and that activities are being done “quietly.”

“It is not worthwhile from the point of view of Turkish tourism for tourists to fear traveling to Turkey,” he said.

Mordy Oknin (lef)t, and Natali Oknin (righ)t. (Courtesy/Facebook)

In the first public comment by a top Turkish official on the affair, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on Tuesday claimed that the Oknins had “focused” on Erdogan’s residence while photographing it and “marked it.”

He told reporters that prosecutors believe the Israelis committed “what can be called diplomatic and military espionage,” but that the court will decide.

Some Israeli analysts see Soylu’s remarks as showing a worrying increase in the weight given to the case in Turkey, complicating diplomatic efforts for a resolution that Israel had hoped to keep low-key and behind the scenes. Soylu is the No. 2 in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, making him a candidate to succeed the long-serving Turkish president.

In addition, Soylu’s reference to the courts is a concern as it may indicate that a diplomatic resolution won’t be permitted. The sometimes slow movement of the Turkish court system could also condemn the Oknins to an extended period of detention before there are any developments, the Ynet news site assessed.

Turkey is now seen as raising the stakes, which would require more open high-level diplomacy, including the direct intervention of Herzog, possibly in a phone call with Erdogan.

Another cause for concern is that the case is gaining attention in Turkish media, making it harder for authorities to quietly solve the issue. However, some of the local coverage has been critical, with one journalist writing that the arrests will make people “laugh” at Turkey, according to a report of his words by Ynet.

Fatih Altayli, who in the past was considered close to Erdogan, wrote: “It isn’t even funny, it is a disgrace.”

On Wednesday morning, Turkish media reported the identity of a local man who was also arrested with the Oknins and was apparently their tour guide. According to those reports, the man learned Hebrew from his former wife, who is Jewish, Ynet reported.

Screen capture from video of Mordy Oknin (left), and his wife Natali (right), with an unidentified Turkish man, on a street in Istanbul, November 2021. (Channel 12 news)

Turkish television also covered the story on Tuesday night.

Turkish authorities detained the couple, residents of Modiin, on Thursday after they photographed Erdogan’s palace 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.

Israeli consul officials visited both members of the couple for the first time on Tuesday. Mossad chief David Barnea also spoke with his Turkish counterpart about the situation, the Kan public broadcaster reported, saying that Israeli sources were split on how long it would take to resolve the matter.

The couple’s Israeli lawyer, Nir Yaslovizh, saw Mordy on Monday and Natali on Tuesday.

Natali Oknin has in the past appeared in commercials for the Egged bus company. In 2018, Egged posted pictures of the Oknins on its company Facebook page, describing them as drivers for the company’s Tel Aviv Central Bus Station branch and listing their routes.

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Posted by ‎אגד‎ on Monday, October 8, 2018

Sunday reports said that diplomatic efforts were being kept low-key in the hope of not causing an escalation that could then become much more complex to resolve.

Officials are hoping that Turkey will quietly expel the couple, bringing the incident to an end. The delicate diplomacy is further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

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