Israeli officials believe the coming 48 hours will be critical in seeking to secure the release of an Israeli couple detained in Turkey on suspicion of espionage after photographing a presidential palace, according to television reports on Sunday.
Channel 12 and 13 both quoted officials as saying they believe that if the saga is not resolved in the next two days or three days, Natali and Mordy Oknin could remain in Turkish custody for years.
Turkish authorities detained the couple, residents of Modiin, on Thursday for photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul. The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do so.
Despite expectations that would be released, a Turkish court on Friday extended the couple’s remand by 20 days, with local authorities saying they suspected the Oknins of espionage.
Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the couple, both of whom are Egged bus drivers, are spies.
The Sunday reports said that diplomatic efforts are currently 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 long-standing tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.
There has been some progress but officials are not prepared to say anything more, Channel 12 reported. However, preparations are also being made for ways to apply greater diplomatic pressure on Erdogan, or provide incentives for a resolution if it becomes a major stand-off.
Earlier in the day Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting that he was working to secure the Oknins’ release.
“They are two innocent citizens who accidentally got into a complicated situation,” Bennett said.
Although the Prime Minister’s Office, President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are all working to defuse the situation, contacts are reportedly still being carried out by lower-level officials, the reports said. Herzog has not spoken personally to Erdogan about the matter.
“We are still working to understand the incident; at the moment we aren’t getting clear answers,” a senior official told Channel 12.
An attorney for the Oknins is set to appeal against prosecutors’ intentions to charge them with espionage and against the 20-day extension of their remand. Israel’s consul in Istanbul has asked to visit the couple in prison and to be informed of their well-being.
The consul’s request has not yet received a response, leaving Israeli officials pessimistic, Channel 13 reported.
Nonetheless, there are indications that Turkey does not intend to provoke a more serious spat. Erdogan has not publicly commented on the affair, nor has he made any demands from Israel. Turkish media has also given the case little attention beyond the initial arrests, with hardly any mention at all made on Sunday, according to Hebrew outlets.
The arrests came a day after a bill to recognize the Armenian genocide was presented before the Knesset plenum for a preliminary discussion. Similar bill proposals have been submitted dozens of times in recent years, without advancing toward becoming law, making it unlikely to be connected to the arrests.
The couple were detained after taking pictures from the observation deck of a high tower, a tourist site offering panoramic views of Istanbul, that also overlooks the palace.
Channel 13 reported that other Israelis have been snapping photos of the palace in Istanbul without incident.
Turkish journalist Can Atakli, who wrote an opinion piece that was scornful of the case, noted that thousands of people would be facing espionage charges if taking pictures of the palace was considered to be an act of espionage.
Atakli wrote that when he visited the tower earlier this year, there were many people asking which building was Erdogan’s palace, and that he too snapped a photo of Erdogan’s home.
Israeli tourists vacationing in Turkey told Hebrew media that while they are not noticing any particular animosity towards them, they are being cautious about what they photograph.
However, a Channel 13 news reporter was detained while broadcasting live from Turkey about the Oknins. The reporter, Ali Mograbi, was later released.
Mograbi said it was noticeable that policemen were tailing him all day.
When he started a live broadcast in the street they came and told him to stop. They then took him and made sure he deleted all the photos he had taken before releasing him and telling him not to leave the hotel, he said.