Turkey Agrees to Consular Visit to Israeli Detainees

YERUSHALAYIM -
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. (Oliiver Fitoussi/Flash90)

Following intensive diplomatic efforts, Turkish authorities have said they will allow a consular visit to two Israeli citizens who were detained last week for taking pictures of a presidential palace in Istanbul.

The Israeli foreign ministry said on Monday that they are working with Turkish officials to set the earliest possible time for the visit.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said at his Yesh Atid party faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday afternoon that Israel was “working around the clock” to secure the release of the Israeli couple, both Eged bus drivers from the city of Modi’in.

Lapid asked MKs, ministers and Israeli media outlets to speak about the issue “responsibly” so as not to antagonize Ankara and jeopardize the couple’s safe return.

Israel has formally and unequivocally rejected allegations that the couple are Israeli spies.

The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do photograph the palace, and media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the building.

Earlier on Monday, Foreign Ministry Consular Division head Rina Djerassi headed to Istanbul to bolster efforts to secure the release of the Israeli couple, Mordy and Natali Oaknin.

Turkish police recommended deporting the Oaknins, and notified Israel of its plans. However, the prosecution asked to charge the couple and a Turkish citizen who was with them with espionage.

A court extended their remand on Friday for at least 20 days, as the prosecution prepared its case for a trial.

The move toward spying charges against the Oaknins raised concerns that Erdogan’s government could use the case to help him politically, but that theory grew less plausible after the matter was dropped from the headlines in Turkey after a few days.

Although the Turkish press is paying only scant attention to the story, the Erdogan government’s history of politically motivated detentions has raised concerns in Israel and elsewhere that the couple could be detained in Turkey for a long period of time, perhaps even years.

“Considering the history of the Erdogan government, which throughout the years has held dozens of citizens of Western countries under false allegations, with the aim of using them as bargaining chips against their governments, the Israeli couple could also become a victim of Turkey’s politicized legal system,” said Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who served in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey between 2011 and 2015 as a representative from the pro-secular Republican People’s Party.

According to Erdemir, “If Ankara is again pursuing a policy of hostage diplomacy, it won’t only harm Israeli-Turkish relations, rather the entire tourism industry in Turkey. The idea that taking photographs of tourist attractions could lead to tourists being put behind bars is frightening for any potential visitor to Turkey.”

Turkey and Israel technically maintain diplomatic relations, but they have been strained for most of the past decade since the Erdogan-linked IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) sent the Mavi Marmara ship to bust the IDF’s naval blockade on Gaza, arming some of the people aboard. IDF naval commandos stopped the ship, killing nine activists.

Erdogan has been openly hostile toward Israel, supports Hamas and funds anti-Israel organizations in east Yerushalayim.

Last month, Turkey arrested 15 alleged Mossad spies, non-Israeli Arabs whose photos Turkish media revealed. Israeli sources denied the charges.

Erdogan has not publicly commented on the affair and his government has yet to make any demands for the couple’s release, but on the other hand, details on the investigation or the reason for the decision to extend the Oaknins’ remand have been scarce.

Several Israeli outlets cited sources as saying that the Turkish security establishment was wary of Israelis at this time, given the recent exposure of an alleged Mossad spy ring operating in the country.

Perhaps within that context, Israel’s Channel 13 correspondent Ali Mograbi on Sunday was also detained by Turkish security personnel and asked to stop filming as he covered the story.

Local police asked Mograbi for his journalist’s certificate and even ordered him to delete the materials he had photographed.

After he was questioned, Mograbi was released to his hotel and ordered not to leave it.