Hostage diplomacy: How Israel became Turkey's victim

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: What happened to the Oaknins raises enormously troubling questions about Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of “hostage diplomacy,” and the safety of Israelis.

 MORDI AND NATALI Oaknin stand outside their home in Modi’in yesterday following their release from a Turkish jail. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
MORDI AND NATALI Oaknin stand outside their home in Modi’in yesterday following their release from a Turkish jail.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K, for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong,” reads the opening line of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the classic tale of one man’s utter powerlessness in dealing with an inscrutable regime.

Replace the names Mordi and Natali Oaknin for Josef K, and you get a sense of what the married pair of Egged bus drivers from Modi’in went through for eight days in a Turkish jail.

One moment they were carefree tourists looking out over Istanbul from the tallest observation tower in Europe and snapping photos from their phones, and the next minute they were incarcerated in a Turkish jail without access to their lawyer or an Israeli consular official for almost a week.

Unlike with Josef K, however, the crimes of which the Oaknins were accused were made known: “military and political espionage,” at least according to Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.

Also, unlike Josef K, who was eventually executed in a quarry outside of town, the Oaknin saga had a happy ending: on Thursday morning they flew home to an ecstatic family and a nation that breathed a sigh of collective relief.

Mordi Oaknin, the husband of Natali Oaknin, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Mordi Oaknin, the husband of Natali Oaknin, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Still, like The Trial, what happened to the Oaknins – despite the seemingly happily-ever-after ending – is deeply disturbing and raises enormously troubling questions about Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of “hostage diplomacy,” Israel’s relationship with Turkey, and whether Israelis are even safe traveling there anymore.

TO UNDERSTAND the Oaknin saga, said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, the lens needs to be widened.

This saga did not begin when this couple was detained on November 10, but, rather, when the Turkish Intelligence Organization last month arrested an alleged Mossad spy ring it claimed was made up of 15 men – Palestinian and Syrian Arabs.

While that story made a huge splash in Turkey, following as it did reports the previous week that Turkish intelligence uncovered an Iranian spy ring, it barely registered in Israel. No Israeli officials responded, and within a day it disappeared from the news.

This, according to Yanarocak, displeased the Turkish intelligence service. It had wanted the arrests to gain the attention of the Israeli intelligence community, and use it as a bargaining chip to get Israel, he speculated, to make concessions.

“From the Turkish perspective, they are sure the 15 were connected with Israel. I assume Turkish intelligence demanded something concrete from the Mossad, and the Mossad did not give them what they wanted,” he said.

The problem was twofold: First, the evidence against the 15 men was very flimsy, and, secondly, they were non-Israeli Arabs whose detention did not move the Israeli public. For that, the Turks needed some Israeli Jews. The Oaknins fit that profile.

Yanarocak does not think that a command came from on high to kidnap Jewish Israelis, but once suspicions were raised about the couple, and they fell into the lap of the authorities, the Turks saw this “as an opportunity to receive [from Israel] what they could not get from the previous affair.”

As to what that could be, Yanarocak said: “My assumption, and I emphasize the word assumption, is that this is something related to Hamas’s activities in Turkey, or to Turkey’s activities in the Gaza Strip.”

He based this partly on press reports in Turkey about the spy ring which stressed that the suspects were following Hamas members on Turkish soil.

Even though the 15 men arrested in October were Palestinians, and very well could have been working on behalf of the Palestinian Authority monitoring the activities of its archrival Hamas, the Turkish press labeled this an “Israeli spy ring.”

“It is easier to say to the Turkish public that they captured Israeli agents, rather than that they captured Palestinian agents who were spying on other Palestinians,” he said.

Either way, the arrest of this “spy ring” – an operation a year in the making – got absolutely nothing out of Israel. So, a couple of weeks later – at least according to this theory – the Turks struck again.

WHILE IT may sound crazy that a NATO ally nabs the nationals of other countries to use as bargaining chips, when it comes to Turkey this is not science fiction.

Aykan Erdemir, who was a member of the Turkish parliament from 2011 to 2015 as a representative of the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, said that this type of “hostage diplomacy” has been a part of Erdogan’s toolbox since the failed coup against him in 2016.

Erdemir, who is currently the senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, coauthored an abstract for that Washington think tank in 2018 titled “Erdogan’s Hostage Diplomacy.” Shortly thereafter an article appeared in Foreign Policy under the headline “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Is Hostage Taking.”

In other words, what the Oaknins suffered and Israelis went through this week is nothing new: Erdogan has been doing it for years. Among the most celebrated cases were the arrest of US Pastor Andrew Brunson in 2016 and the arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel in 2017.

“I am quite confident that the Oaknins are just the latest bargaining chips or pawns in Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy,” Erdemir said. “He will use this opportunity to extract concessions from the Israeli authorities.”

Erdemir agreed that it was unlikely that a plot was hatched at the top to kidnap the couple from Modi’in, but once it became clear that they were picked up, there was “an improvisation of policy.” He said this has also been the pattern concerning other hostages taken in Turkey, including two Greek soldiers detained in 2018.

This shows just how “irrational” Turkish policy has become, he said, before correcting himself and saying that this type of behavior cannot be merely dismissed as irrational.

“There is actually a rationality to it, not within the Western democratic system, but within the Islamist ideology,” he said.

“I would argue that given the milieu and ideology that Erdogan belongs to, he has been borrowing from Iran’s policies, and has been borrowing from more militant Islamist groups’ policies – because we know that kidnapping, hostage taking and ransom demands have been commonplace with Iran and its proxies as well as with Sunni jihadist organizations.”

Erdemir said that all of Turkey’s Syrian proxies have been implicated in kidnapping for ransom, and that there it has become a pervasive practice.

Plus, and this is the most problematic aspect, Erdogan has seen that this hostage diplomacy brings results, at least some of the time, even vis-a-vis Israel.

After Turkey kidnapped Brunson, Erdogan asked then-US president Donald Trump to call then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and intercede on behalf of a Turkish national, Ebru Ozkan, arrested in Israel for smuggling funds for Hamas. Trump made the call, thinking this would help get Brunson released. Israel released Ozkan, but Turkey held on to Brunson. He was finally released three months later in 2018, but only after Trump unleashed a Twitter storm that drove the Turkish lira into the ground.

Germany, it is widely believed, did give in to some Turkish demands as part of the price for releasing Yücel, lifting sanctions on Turkey’s military industry.

Erdemir, speaking a day before the Oaknins were released, said that previous hostage-taking cases in Turkey have shown a pattern from which three things can be learned.

First, that time is of the essence, and that there should be strong efforts to achieve release within the first two weeks of arrest, because the longer the detained remain in custody, the more the affair is “likely to escalate,” and the less likely the chance for an early release or acquittal.

Secondly, he said, Erdogan often responds more positively and quickly to incentives and disincentives offered behind closed doors, which allows him to save face.

And the third lesson, he said, is that “if the Israeli policy revolves around incentives, rather than a healthy mix of disincentives and incentives, this could encourage further hostage-taking. Saving an innocent couple is of utmost importance, but while doing so the Israeli government should not incentivize Erdogan to escalate hostage diplomacy by taking other victims.”

WHICH LEADS to the question: What did Israel give Turkey in return? While Israeli officials said there was no price, the Turkish-born Yanarocak finds that hard to believe.

He said it was worth noting that Mossad chief David Barnea was in Turkey dealing with the issue, indicating that this affair was related to the intelligence communities.

“Everyone is saying that Israel did not pay a political price, but I strongly believe we paid a price in the field of intelligence,” he said.

As to what that price could be, speculation ranges from something having to do with Mossad tracking of Hamas operatives in Turkey, to Turkish activities in the West Bank and Gaza, or even something involving Turkish foundations operating in Jerusalem.

But Yanarocak said he is convinced there was some price – in other words, Erdogan did not let the couple go out of the goodness of his heart. Which makes sense, because while the Turkish president is known for many things, humanitarianism and a soft spot for Israelis are not foremost among them.•