Turkey is said to be weighing between bringing charges of espionage against an Israeli couple detained in Turkey for taking photographs of the president’s palace or charging them with a lesser offense of engaging in acts that harm the country’s national security, Israeli TV reported Saturday night.
Channel 12 reported, without citing sources, that Turkish prosecutors were intent on charging the couple and were still considering between the serious espionage charge or a lesser charge. The news channel also reported that the Israeli government feared that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would exploit the crisis to extract some sort of price from Israel for the release of the couple.
Also Saturday, Walla news reported that Israel has not received an explanation from Turkish officials for the arrest and detention of the couple, Mordy and Natali Oknin, and officials increasingly suspect the arrests were made for political gain.
The Foreign Ministry still hopes the standoff can be solved through Israel’s consulate, without political actors getting involved. “But right now, it doesn’t look good,” a senior official told Walla.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is leading the effort to secure the couple’s release and is in talks with Israel’s consular representative in Ankara. President Isaac Herzog is also involved and has spoken with the couple’s family.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke to the family on Saturday evening.
“Officials at the highest level are engaged with this, and will continue to take action to quickly bring about a solution,” he told them.
Turkish authorities detained Natali and Mordy Oknin, residents of Modi’in, on Thursday for photographing Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul. The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do so.
A Turkish court on Friday extended their remand by 20 days, with local authorities saying they suspected the Oknins of espionage, as the episode appeared to be expanding into a diplomatic spat between the two countries.
Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the couple, both of them bus drivers, are spies.
On Saturday, the couple’s Israeli lawyer arrived in Istanbul as part of an effort to secure their release. The Israeli consulate in the city has yet to meet with the Oknins and was making efforts to do so as soon as possible, according to Channel 12.
Meanwhile, the couple’s family launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the upcoming legal battle.
The family spoke with Lapid on Friday who told them the ministry filed an urgent request that consular representatives visit the couple in police custody.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said the couple “do not work for any Israeli agency.”
Herzog told the couple’s family Saturday that he was “convinced of their innocence,” and reiterated that the pair have no connection to any government security agencies.
“We’re taking action to return them home quickly,” he said.
According to Channel 12, Israeli authorities have asked the family not to speak to the media about the affair in the meantime, arguing that press interviews could harm efforts to secure the Oknins’ release
The decision to keep the couple behind bars following their arrest surprised Israeli officials, who had been under the assumption that the court would order their immediate deportation from the country at Friday’s remand hearing. The detention of a tour guide who was arrested with the couple was extended until Sunday.
Turkish prosecutors told the court that the couple is suspected of spying, claiming they not only photographed Erdogan’s palace but also adjacent security checkpoints and cameras, even supposedly highlighting them before sending the photos to a third party.
The couple, both of whom are Egged bus drivers, insists they only photographed the palace because they were enamored by it and sent the photos to their relatives, not knowing that doing so was illegal.
After taking the photo, Natali Oknin had sent it to a family WhatsApp group with the caption: “Such a nice house.”
Citing local authorities, the Turkish news publication Daily Sabah reported that the couple and the tour guide may face charges of “political and military espionage.”
“They are not spies,” a lawyer for the Israelis told the judge on Friday.
“All in all, this is a couple [who are] bus drivers. I ask that you release them immediately to their home in Israel,” the lawyer said. But the prosecution insisted to the contrary, and the judge ruled in the latter’s favor three hours later.
An unidentified source familiar with Turkey’s legal system told Channel 12, “It is clear that this was a political, rather than a legal, decision… It is clear that elements in Erdogan’s circle exerted pressure and briefed him as if these were Mossad agents on an Israeli mission.”
Nir Yaslovizh, the couple’s Israeli lawyer, blasted the decision afterward in a statement, calling the ruling “bizarre and unacceptable.”
The family only found out that the two had been arrested when they did not return home on Tuesday as scheduled.