After Israeli couple release, don’t fall into Turkey appeasement trap - analysis

Ankara’s accusations of “espionage” and apparent threats to raise the price for the detainees show that it was using hostage diplomacy involving innocent tourists.

 Natali and Mordi 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.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Natali and Mordi 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.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

After a week of being detained on false charges in Turkey, an Israeli couple was able to return home. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and leadership had scrambled to bring them back. This is a proud moment for Israeli diplomacy.

However, the sense of happiness in Israel should not lead to a mistaken reading of the situation. Ankara’s accusations of “espionage” and apparent threats to raise the price for the detainees show that it was using hostage diplomacy involving innocent tourists. This is how Hamas, which is backed by Ankara’s ruling party, has also behaved, holding Israeli civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed in Gaza – for more than seven years. 

Normal regimes don’t detain innocent people. When a country boasts about rule of law, it doesn’t threaten to raise the price of people it detains. A country doesn’t have to be afraid to “offend” or “anger” a democracy that has rule of law.

The fact that Israeli media were cautioned against inflaming the situation and told that the Foreign Ministry needed time to quietly sort things out illustrates how tense the situation was and how Ankara doesn’t behave like a normal country.

This means that when dealing with France or the UK, if a tourist couple was charged for something they didn’t do by mistake, then there would be no threat by the Quai d’Orsay or the UK Foreign Ministry that if Israeli media was critical, those countries would not let the couple go free. 

Similarly, in dealings between authoritarian states, hostage-taking rarely happens because each regime can shut down the other regime’s activities with the press of a button. That means the authoritarian regimes generally respect one another. Of course, they don’t have critical media either, so there is no need to silence domestic critique.

That is why authoritarian regimes may sometimes trade people or hostages – but they generally don’t use hostage-taking to get concessions, because they know that there isn’t some way that popular pressure will result in them.  

The hostage-taking tends to happen increasingly between the authoritarians, like Ankara and Tehran, and Western countries. Iran has kidnapped academics; it kidnapped several Americans in Iraq in 2009 and took them across the border. The Islamic Republic has plotted to kidnap a dissident in the US and kill others in Europe; it kidnapped a journalist it lured to Iraq and killed him; it has held the wife of a British man hostage and done an endless number of other operations like this.

Who doesn’t Iran kidnap? Chinese citizens. Russian citizens. That is because the authoritarians respect each other. Democracy, on the other hand, can always be squeezed for cash or appeasement. 

NOW THAT we understand that paradigm, it’s worth looking at the potential Israel has to fall into the trap of logic regarding Turkey’s recent actions. Ankara did detain the couple on ridiculous charges. Who ordered the detention and how it transpired may never be known. But what is clear is that some analysts in Israel argued that now that Turkey has used tourists as a bargaining chip, Jerusalem should improve ties with Ankara.  

 Natali and Mordi 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) Natali and Mordi 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)

Let’s look at that logic again and compare it to our model. Authoritarian regimes take hostages from democracies because they see democracies as weak and think that popular pressure will result in concessions. Authoritarian regimes do not take hostages from countries they respect.

So the taking of the hostages relates to a belief that this will bring concessions. The idea that Ankara should be rewarded with better relations would only serve to send the message that detaining tourists every time it wants something will be how the regime can profit in the future. That would threaten to turn every tourist into a potential hostage and profit center for Ankara’s regime.  

Another argument behind the short crisis was that Turkey needed to save face, having gotten itself in the bad position of risking tourism by doing this. But it was Ankara’s own judiciary that remanded the couple to custody. Clearly, the regime controls its judiciary, having gutted the civil service and imprisoning some of Turkey’s bureaucrats. So the idea that the judges made a mistake is not borne out by the evidence: that as recently as a day before the release, the interior minister was slamming the Israeli couple and prejudicing the case.

Ankara didn’t need to save face from a bad decision it made. This idea that every authoritarian regime must not be humiliated for doing illegal things is another way that democracies tend to misread the authoritarians. Russia, China and Iran don’t give Turkey space to abuse their citizens, because Ankara respects them and doesn’t do it in the first place.   

Lastly, there was the theory that Turkey’s ruling party was losing support in the polls and that detaining Israeli tourists was a populist move. In this bizarre cynical reading of the events, will Turkey’s ruling party detain Israeli tourists every time it needs to win an election? And should Israel, therefore, issue a travel warning every year before an election in Turkey? That doesn’t sound like normal foreign policy.  

THERE IS no evidence that Turkey’s ruling party got any local, popular support for this action. In general, it always tries to create crises, sometimes with Syria or Europe, to pose as being tough. But it doesn’t appear that average Turkish citizens think Israeli tourists are a fair target. So ascribing this to “domestic politics” is a false read.

Also, there is no reason to accept the scenario that Israel should have relations with countries where attacks on Israelis will be used for domestic politics every year before an election. That is not a reason to increase ties. On the contrary, if a country wants increased ties with Israel, it should treat Israeli tourists well. 

Recent weeks have seen Israel increasing its close relations with Gulf states like Bahrain and the UAE, as well as hosting air forces from around the world. Israel and Greece are increasingly close allies and an Israeli company recently signed a defense deal in Cyprus. The idea that Jerusalem needs closer relations with an Ankara regime that might use tourists as a bargaining chip doesn’t match well with the changing reality in the region. Israelis have many options of countries that welcome them. 

This brings us to the last issue involved. Some may think that Israel has little leverage over Turkey simply because Israel imports goods from there. But its economy is at risk with the lira declining to historic lows. Turkey has been pushed out of the F-35 program, while the UAE appears to be acquiring F-35s. Turkey can’t even seem to get new F-16s.

Ankara’s policies have alienated most of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Although it continues to try to patch things up with Egypt and the Gulf, in general, it is isolated. While it boasts of its power, trying to build alliances with Hungary, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Poland, Ukraine and Central Asian states – as well as Qatar, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan and Malaysia – Turkey has many challenges. Israel, by contrast, appears on the upswing in international relations, with a new government that is building bridges and opening doors globally.  

NONE OF this says that Israel and Turkey can’t repair ties. But the idea they should repair ties because Ankara detained tourists and that it should be rewarded with increased relations and high-level phone calls – and perhaps even concessions by Israel regarding Turkish-backed Hamas or other groups and policies – doesn’t mesh well with reality.

Ankara didn’t get any populist points back home for its actions. It is isolated and needs better relations with Israel. The idea that tourists might become part of a “price tag” or bargaining chip in the future puts uncertainty in the minds of potential tourists and this is not helpful.

Ankara knows how to treat other countries with respect – it shows this in meetings with Russia, Iran for example. Clearly, it can therefore also show this in its relations with Israel. The idea that the Jewish state should always need to repair relations while Turkey does nothing, has never made sense in foreign policy. 

Turkey has put out trial balloons before pretending to want to increase ties. When it sensed that Israel was going to sign a gas deal with Cyprus and Greece and that the Jewish state was rapidly growing closer to those countries in 2019, Ankara pretended it would “reconcile” with Israel.

But this was the same Ankara backing Hamas, hosting the terrorist group with a red carpet, making inflammatory statements about “liberating” Jerusalem from Israel, retaking “Al-Aqsa” – and being the most vocal opponent of the Abraham Accords and of America moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Turkey threatened to suspend relations with the UAE if it normalized relations with Israel. That is in fact what happened in August 2020. Ankara’s opposition and hatred for Israel were so extreme that it sought to prevent the Abraham Accords and peace. It is Turkey that owes Israel explanations and should want to make up for this decade of behavior from the time of the Mavi Marmara maritime incident, not the other way around.

The recent incident of detaining Israeli tourists brought to the fore the voices that argue for falling into the Ankara appeasement trap, a trap many Western countries continue to fall for, thinking that the more extreme its behavior, the more it needs to be given things. But the opposite is largely true.

There is a saying attributed to Vladimir Lenin that relates to bayonets and could be applied to foreign policy. “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push; if you find steel, you withdraw.” Turkey generally has a foreign policy like this – and other countries should draw the right conclusions.