Israelis detained indefinitely in Turkey for Erdogan palace photo

The couple were arrested on suspicion of espionage after photographing the palace of the president and sending them to a third party via WhatsApp.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a protest against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem, in Istanbul, Turkey May 18, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a protest against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem, in Istanbul, Turkey May 18, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

A Turkish court has indefinitely extended the remand of Natali and Mordy Oaknin, Israelis accused of spying after taking a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace, as Israel denied they have any connection to official agencies.

Police had recommended deporting them, notifying Israel of its plans, but then the prosecution asked that the couple, as well as a Turkish citizen who was with them, face charges of “political or military espionage,” according to Turkish media.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has gotten directly involved in the matter, but is trying to keep a low profile in order not to turn it into a crisis, a senior diplomatic source said on Saturday.

The move toward spying charges against the Oaknins sparked widespread speculation in Hebrew media that Erdogan’s government could be using their case for political reasons, and could further deteriorate the poor state of relations between Jerusalem and Ankara that has lasted for over a decade.

Israel’s embassy in Ankara and consulate-general in Istanbul have been working in recent days to try to secure the Oaknins’ release, asking the Turkish authorities to allow an urgent visit.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog called the Oaknin family in Israel to reassure them.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting of his ruling AK Party via video link in Ankara, Turkey March 4, 2021. (credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting of his ruling AK Party via video link in Ankara, Turkey March 4, 2021. (credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Both emphasized in their messages that the couple “does not work for any Israeli agency,” and the president said he is “convinced of their innocence.”

Herzog tried to encourage the family and said he is working with Lapid and the Foreign Ministry as much as possible to bring them back.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke with the family, at their request, his spokesperson said. He told them that he will do all he can to help bring the couple home, in full coordination with the government.

The Oaknins took the photo of Erdogan’s palace while in the Camilca Tower, a television tower that opened earlier this year and is the tallest in Europe. A waitress heard them talking about it and reported them to the police.

The couple, residents of Modi’in who work as bus drivers for Egged, was arrested earlier this week. The court ruled on Saturday that they are to remain in jail until their trial, which will not be for at least 20 days to allow the prosecution to prepare its case.

The Oaknins were arrested about a month after Turkey arrested 15 alleged Mossad spies, whose photos Turkish media revealed. Israeli sources denied the charges.

Turkey and Israel technically maintain diplomatic relations, but they have been strained for most of the past decade since the Erdogan-linked IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) sent the Mavi Marmara ship to bust the IDF’s naval blockade on Gaza, arming some of the people aboard. IDF naval commandos stopped the ship, killing nine activists.

Erdogan has been openly hostile toward Israel, supports Hamas and funds anti-Israel organizations in east Jerusalem.

Earlier this year, however, Herzog and Erdogan spoke on the phone for 40 minutes, the first call between the Turkish president and an Israeli official since 2017. The leaders emphasized the importance of Israel-Turkey relations to security and stability in the region, as well as continued trade, according to an Israeli readout of the call.