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Turkey Risks Harming Relations With Israel Over Arrest of Tourist Couple, Analysts Say
Israeli tourists arrested in Turkey, Mordy and Natali Oknin. (Twitter)

Turkey Risks Harming Relations With Israel Over Arrest of Tourist Couple, Analysts Say

The Israeli pair was arrested last week in Istanbul on suspicion of espionage after allegedly taking photos of the Turkish president’s residence

The arrest in Istanbul of an Israeli couple on espionage charges threatens to deteriorate already fraught relations between Israel and Turkey, but attempts are being made to quietly find a resolution, analysts told The Media Line.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Tuesday that Mordy and Natali Oknin of Modiin in central Israel, who both work as drivers for an Israeli bus company, were detained in Istanbul after they took pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s residence and “marked it,” the Turkish state news agency reported.

Soylu said the next step is for the court to make a decision on the matter. Soylu’s comments were the first public comments from a Turkish official on last week’s arrests.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that putting the couple under arrest, which in Turkey is legally more severe than a detention, is a worrisome escalation for Israel.

“It just doesn’t make sense that these people are spies,” Lindenstrauss told The Media Line. “Harassing what seems like innocent tourists is quite unprecedented and this is counterproductive.”

The Dolmabahçe Palace Garden in Istanbul, Turkey in a 2014 photo. (Derzsi Elekes Andor/Wikimedia Commons)

Local reports in Israel note that Natali Oknin appeared in a commercial for the Egged bus company, her employer, which shows her driving one of its buses and welcoming a passenger.

The Israeli government has denied that Natali and Mordy Oknin are spies.

Nimrod Goren, the president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said Israeli politicians have refrained from making strong statements against Turkey.

“They’re attempting to [give] the professional channel a chance to close it quietly,” he told The Media Line.

Goren said that if the two sides can find a resolution to the case, it could be a signal to both that they could increase their cooperation in other areas after years of fraught relations.

It just doesn’t make sense that these people are spies

Turkey and Israel have been able to somewhat separate their political disputes from their economic relations, which include tourism and trade ties, Goren said.

However, the arrest of the Israeli couple puts that at risk if they aren’t freed.

“It will eventually lead to a negative reaction, … currently the politicians want to avoid [that],” Goren said.

Meanwhile, he adds: “If this political tension spills over to [the] economic and tourism sectors, then I think relations will be less than they are today.”

A key point of contention between the two sides often is the treatment of the Palestinians.

Many analysts have said Erdogan is trying to present himself as a global defender of Muslims and siding with the Palestinians against Israel fits that agenda.

Kristian Brakel, an Istanbul-based analyst with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, told The Media Line that for Erdogan one possible benefit of the arrest of the Israeli couple could be a domestic popularity boost.

“It always plays well in large parts of the Turkish public to be anti-Israeli,” he explained.

Brakel said that improving relations has become more difficult because the United States’ role in supporting the two country’s ties has decreased.

“For sure, the relationship will continue to be rocky for the foreseeable future, at least until maybe another Turkish government comes into play; but, even then, I would assume the relationship would not be much better,” he said.

The attempt to strengthen ties with Israel had come amid Turkey’s growing international isolation, especially felt in the eastern Mediterranean where several of the country’s rivals, including Israel and Greece, have formed a partnership to export gas to Europe.

That isolation led Erdogan to try to strengthen international ties, including with Israel.

In a July phone call, he congratulated new Israeli President Isaac Herzog and said the countries’ ties were important for the region.

That same month, a spokesperson for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP said Turkey wanted to focus on trade and tourism, a key sector of the economy.

Unfortunately for the couple, I don’t see what Israel would be willing to give to Turkey for their release

However, Turkey’s tourism sector could take a hit with the arrest of the Israeli couple getting widespread attention in Israel.

Turkey’s finances have already faced several severe blows, with economists warning that the country could face another currency crisis as the lira’s slide hits record lows.

Turkey already experienced a currency crisis in 2018 after the US put sanctions on its NATO ally for the detention of an American pastor.

Ankara was accused of practicing “hostage diplomacy” by detaining other countries’ citizens to try to gain diplomatic leverage.

Lindenstrauss said if that becomes the case with the arrest of the Israeli couple, Ankara would likely not benefit.

“I can’t see a clear Turkish demand that Israel will comply with easily. I can see, also, all sorts of general demands or demands that Israel would in no way accept from Turkey. Unfortunately for the couple, I don’t see what Israel would be willing to give to Turkey for their release,” she said.

 

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