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Turkish-Israeli relations face a new crisis

Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are greeted upon their arrival home in the Israeli city of Modiin on 18 November 2021 following their release. [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images]
Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are greeted upon their arrival home in the Israeli city of Modiin on 18 November 2021 following their release. [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images]

The arrest of two Israelis for filming the home of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to provoke angry reactions in Israel, despite the apparent keenness not to enter into a new political crisis with Turkey. However, media coverage suggests that there are fears in Israel that the issue may escalate, even though Mossad, the National Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have all sent messages to Ankara in an attempt to find a quick solution.

While Israeli security and intelligence agencies insist that the detained Israelis are not spies, Tel Aviv is concerned that Ankara may turn it into a political issue. There is some optimism, though, because Erdogan has not blown the matter up in the media; it hasn't even made the headlines of local Turkish media yet.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to end the matter as soon as possible, before it turns into a serious crisis. Contacts have been made, and the politicians have told Israel's security services to speak to their Turkish counterparts to confirm that the Israeli couple are not spies.

In the meantime, Israel expects Erdogan to exact a high price for the release of the detainees. Aside from any direct domestic benefits that he may gain, he could demand a variety of changes in the difficult conditions imposed by Israel on the Palestinians relating to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Israeli-led blockade stifling the Gaza Strip, and Israel's strategic relations with Greece and Cyprus.

READ: Turkey's Jews meet at historic Ankara synagogue after 40 years

As efforts are being made to strike a deal or plea bargain, officials aren't releasing any statements, which might harm the diplomatic process. Even the couple's family are keeping quiet and out of the media spotlight.

Mossad spy chief David Barnea has become involved and is taking the lead in negotiations with his Turkish counterpart. At the same time, Israeli Foreign Ministry diplomats are working quietly on the international scene to learn what Turkey's intentions are and listen to its justifications.

Although several days have passed since the incident, Israel is still trying to understand whether it is a domestic security issue, or a higher political matter. The answer will, by and large, be determined by how long it takes before a solution is found. The Turkish court's decision to extend their detention and not to deport the couple has resulted in Israel thinking that there are elements interested in using the case to create a political crisis with the occupation state.

Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are greeted upon their arrival home in the Israeli city of Modiin on 18 November 2021 following their release. [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images]

Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are greeted upon their arrival home in the Israeli city of Modiin on 18 November 2021 following their release. [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images]

It should be remembered that neither Israel nor Turkey have an ambassador in the other's capital. Lower level diplomacy is still possible, though, making it possible to resolve the problem without any escalation. Officials in Tel Aviv are considering a set of measures. This could include declaring Turkey to be a dangerous tourist destination for Israeli citizens, as they may be arrested and used as bargaining chips. Although tourism has declined due to the coronavirus pandemic, Istanbul still attracts many Israeli flights. However, Israel is keen to avoid putting further strain on its relations with Turkey. Political and diplomatic relations may be strained and far from stable, but economic links aren't at the moment, and Israel will want to keep them that way.

READ: Will Turkish efforts to hold Israel to account for its crimes bear fruit?

It should be noted that the arrest of these two Israelis came only a few days after the Turkish security services announced the discovery of a Mossad spy cell believed to have been collecting sensitive information and intelligence, and trying to recruit informants. This discovery was not followed by a political crisis between Ankara and Tel Aviv, probably because none of those arrested in the cell were Israelis, and Israel usually does not pay much attention when such spies are arrested. When their cover is blown, it is not worth risking a political crisis with any other country.

Now, though, Turkey has two Israeli citizens in detention, accused of spying, so a crisis is seen as a price worth paying to get them back to Israel. Nevertheless, the occupation government does not appear to have much enthusiasm for a new crisis with Turkey, so it is trying to resolve the issue quietly, away from the glare of publicity. Bennett has instructed his ministers not to make any statements which might lead to counter-statements from Ankara and thus complicate the matter.

Instead, the Israeli media has been left to take out its anger on Turkey and its president, both of which have been a thorn in Israel's side for many years. When Israeli spies and even assassins are arrested in Arab capitals, they always find their way back to Tel Aviv, quietly and without fuss, to a hero's welcome. Turkey bucks that trend, though, and Israel knows it. Hence, Bennett is taking a softly-softly approach in what he has called a complex situation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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