Nov 18, 2021 - World

Israeli couple held in Turkey on spy charges freed after diplomatic push

The couple is greeted upon their return home to israel. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty

After a week of quiet diplomacy, Turkey released the two Israeli tourists who had been held on espionage charges after taking photos of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's residence.

Why it matters: The situation had threatened to become the new Israeli government's first major diplomatic crisis, but its swift resolution could now present an opportunity for Israeli and Turkey to improve relations. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources expect the country's leaders to speak on Thursday.

Driving the news: On Wednesday afternoon, a Turkish judge issued a secret verdict that the two Israelis arrested last week — Mordi and Natalie Oknin — were innocent and did not commit any acts of espionage.

  • They went through medical examinations before being released and transferred to the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. On Thursday around 5AM local time they landed in Israel.

Behind the scenes: The diplomatic talks to solve the crisis were managed only between the two countries. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said they considered asking for assistance from the U.S., U.K. or Azerbaijan but decided to keep the discussions bilateral in order to avoid negotiations on a broader diplomatic deal.

  • According to the officials, the talks took place in two different channels: Irit Lillian, the charge d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, spoke with Erdoğan’s senior adviser Ibrahim Kalin. Meanwhile the director of the Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, spoke with his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan.
  • A third channel also operated in the background: Israeli President Itzhak Herzog spoke several times with senior Turkish officials with whom he has a personal connection. He didn’t speak to Erdoğan during the crisis.
  • The main message from Israel, both in public and in private, was that the Oknins were not intelligence agents but innocent tourists who got caught up in an unfortunate incident.

After Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu made a public statement about the couple on Tuesday, breaking the silence of the Turkish government, Israeli officials grew concerned that was a signal the crisis would escalate.

  • The Israelis began push harder for a quick resolution, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials say.
  • Kalin, Erdoğan's adviser, came back with a reassuring message, saying there was no political motivation behind the arrest or guidance from the political level to escalate, and Turkey was working to resolve the issue.
  • On Wednesday around noon local time, Kalin informed Lillian of the decision to release the couple. Israeli officials say the Turkish government didn’t ask for anything in return.

Only around 10 of the most senior officials in the Israeli government were informed of the release.

  • The Foreign Ministry informed the couple's family but asked them not to share the news until the two were on the private jet to Israel.
  • The Foreign Ministry even asked Israel's military censor to issue a gag order to prevent the media from reporting on the release. That may not have been necessary, as press reports on Wednesday were still broadly pessimistic.

Between the lines: Israeli officials believe this issue reached Erdoğan's level, and that he wanted to get it over with.

  • They say the Turkish president had been signaling in recent months that he wanted to improve relations with Israel, partly in order to improve his status in Washington. This crisis, Israeli officials contend, is an opportunity for him to do that.

What to watch: If Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett do speak to Erdoğan, as expected, it would be the first call between an Israeli prime minister and a Turkish president since 2013.

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