Dismay in Jerusalem as Turkish interior minister calls Israeli couple spies

Consuls bring them supplies as prosecution prepares case for trial during 20-day remand.

 Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, August 21, 2019 (photo credit: Ahmet Bolat/Pool via REUTERS)
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, August 21, 2019
(photo credit: Ahmet Bolat/Pool via REUTERS)

The ordeal of the Israeli couple jailed in Istanbul for photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s home seemed far from a resolution on Tuesday after a Turkish minister said that they will stand trial.

“The couple photographed Erdogan’s home; they focused on the house and marked it,” Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said in a news conference. “The prosecutor’s office estimates that they committed a crime of military and political espionage, but the court will make the decision in the future.”

While Israel had hoped to resolve the matter and bring Natali and Mordi Oaknin home quickly, a diplomatic source in Jerusalem said that through diplomatic channels, Soylu’s public commitment to a court case means it will likely be a drawn-out affair.

The Oaknins, Egged bus drivers who live in Modi’in, took the photo of Erdogan’s palace while in the Camlica Tower, the tallest tower in Europe that opened earlier this year. A waitress heard them talking about it and reported them to the police, who arrested them and a Turkish friend who accompanied them on their visit.

Israel’s consul in Istanbul, Ronen Levi, visited Natali, and Consul-General Udi Eitam visited Mordy on Tuesday. The diplomats also met with prison authorities to ensure the couple was being held in suitable living conditions. They gave them clothing and supplies.

Turkish police officers wearing face masks, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, in the background, patrol at touristic Sultanahmet Square following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 5, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)Turkish police officers wearing face masks, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, in the background, patrol at touristic Sultanahmet Square following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 5, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and the consulate team in Istanbul updated the Oaknins’ family in Israel.

The Oaknins’ Israeli attorney Nir Yaslovitzh also visited Natali, and she told him to find advertisements for Egged in which she was featured, to use as proof that she is not a Mossad agent, Channel 12 reported.

Turkish media claimed that the couple shared the photo they took in a WhatsApp group and wrote down technical information about the tower, but the Oaknin’s daughter, Shiraz Ben-Harosh, told Israeli media she did not receive any photos of the building.

Meanwhile, Ben-Harosh launched a crowdfunding page to pay her parents’ legal fees.

Turkish police originally recommended deporting the Oaknins, and notified Israel of its plans. However, the prosecution charged them with espionage. A court extended their remand on Friday for at least 20 days, as the prosecution prepared its case for a trial.

The case comes just weeks after the Turkish news agency Sabah claimed that a Mossad network of 15 Arabs has been caught by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Hamas-affiliated media had claimed beforehand that Palestinian spies were working for the Mossad in Turkey.

According to the report by Sabah, one of the five cells met with case officers from the Mossad and provided information and documents important for Israel. Information about Turkish and foreign students in Turkey was given to the Mossad in exchange for payment, according to Sabah.