ANKARA: An Israeli couple detained last week in Turkey on spy charges for photographing the presidential residence in Istanbul were on Thursday released by Turkish authorities.
Bus drivers Natali and Mordy Oknin returned to Israel with two senior consular officials on a private jet sent by the Israeli government after Ankara’s surprise move to let them go.
The pair’s story had been followed closely in Israel which had branded the espionage allegations as “groundless.”
Turkey’s decision to end the week-long standoff has been interpreted by analysts as being a positive sign of its desire to prevent a new fallout with Israel.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog welcomed the couple back home and thanked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government for their cooperation.
Bennett also congratulated the couple’s family for showing restraint despite fears that the legal process to set them free could have taken a decade and said the relatives had played a significant role in efforts to bring them home.
However, on Tuesday Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed that the Israeli couple had been engaged in diplomatic and military espionage by “focusing” on Erdogan’s residence while taking photographs, but he said the court would decide on their case.
Turkish authorities had originally said the couple were arrested for photographing the presidential residence in the Kisikli neighborhood of Istanbul’s Anatolian side, but Israeli and foreign media reports suggested the pair were on a boat trip and had simply used a zoom lens to snap the waterfront of Dolmabahce Palace, one of the most popular visitor sites in the city that is occasionally used by the Turkish president.
Neither Israel nor Turkey have ambassadors in each other’s country due to a diplomatic rift that has lasted for years.
Turkey recalled its envoy in May 2018 in an escalating dispute over Israel’s response to Palestinian protests at the Gaza border, which broke out in the wake of the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Selin Nasi, the London representative of the Ankara Policy Center, told Arab News: “The charges brought against the Israeli couple and their tour guide mark a new low for Turkish-Israeli relations, even if the incident was something local that got out of hand, as some media reports claim.”
Around 15 people were recently detained by Turkish authorities on espionage charges for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.
Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and police revealed an Iranian spy network in eastern Turkey in October after eight people including two Iranians were detained over a plot to kidnap a former Iranian soldier in Turkey.
Nasi said the charges brought against the Israeli couple when assessed in line with Turkey’s detention of 15 people in October who allegedly worked for Israel’s Mossad agency, had created a prevailing perception on the Turkish side that Israel was engaged in espionage operations against Turkish interests.
“This clearly contradicts with Turkey’s rapprochement efforts with Israel since mid-2020 which were met positively yet also with skepticism on the Israeli side.
“We know that intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Israel has more or less continued for decades, up until today, even when the diplomatic ties had seemingly hit rock bottom,” she added.
Erdogan has so far kept silent on the Oknin incident.
Nasi said: “The longer this issue remained in the media spotlight, the more it would have harmed Turkey’s international image.
“Still, the international media’s portrayal of the incident as an arbitrary arrest of innocent civilians during their vacation in Turkey is likely to affect tourism negatively, which constitutes an important source of revenue for the Turkish economy.”
Around 500,000 Israeli tourists had visited Turkey in 2019 prior to the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and Nasi pointed out that the Oknin situation may in the short term deter Israelis from picking Turkey as a holiday destination.
Nasi noted that the Israelis had been in favor of keeping diplomatic channels of dialogue open with Turkey since 2010.
“Unless the mutual trust is revived between Turkey and Israel, however, steps for normalization are likely to remain superficial,” she added.