The couple arrested in Turkey must be released - editorial

The Oaknins were arrested in Turkey last week when they photographed the president's palace without knowing it was illegal.

A Turkish flag, with the New and the Suleymaniye mosques in the background, flies on a passenger ferry in Istanbul, Turkey, April 11, 2019. (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
A Turkish flag, with the New and the Suleymaniye mosques in the background, flies on a passenger ferry in Istanbul, Turkey, April 11, 2019.
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

It’s every tourist’s nightmare. You save up, plan a vacation and go away with your spouse after nearly two years of COVID-19-induced grounding.

In the instance of Modi’in residents and Egged bus drivers Natali and Mordy Oaknin, their chosen destination was Istanbul, nearby and full of picturesque sites, great food and friendly people. Like all of us do, they took photos as they explored the city.

While visiting the Camilca Tower, a television tower that opened earlier this year and is the tallest in Europe, they snapped shots of the outside of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace, unaware that it was against the law to photograph the site (as absurd as that law may be, it fits into the Erdogan regime’s totalitarian approach to ruling the country).

After a waitress overheard them talking about taking the pictures, she notified the police and the couple was quickly arrested. Although Turkish police recommended deporting the Oaknins for their “infraction,” the prosecution in the case decided to shackle the couple with the outrageous charges of “political or military espionage.”

A court extended their remand on Friday for at least 20 days, along with that of their Turkish tour guide as the prosecution prepares their case.

 Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey October 16, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER) Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey October 16, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

Since then, Israel has been conducting nonstop quiet diplomacy in an effort to free the Oaknins. In a ray of light, Turkey on Monday authorized a visit by officials from the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul. The Foreign Ministry Consular Division head Rina Djerassi was also dispatched to Istanbul to bolster efforts to secure their release.

At the same time, an effort was being made to appoint an Israeli attorney to the couple’s defense team, which would enable a meeting to take place with Israeli representation. The couple’s Israeli attorney, Nir Yaslovitzh told Ynet on Monday that his Turkish partner on the case visited the Oaknins and found that they are being treated adequately.

Israel is walking a tightrope in pressing for the couple’s release while at the same time, keeping a low profile in its efforts so it doesn’t blow up into a full-fledged diplomatic crisis with Turkey and Erdogan. The efforts are further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to long-standing tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Despite the low profile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog all emphasized on Sunday that the Oaknins were not state agents, but innocent victims.

“These are two innocent citizens who accidentally ended up in a complex situation, and we are doing everything to bring the matter to its resolution,” Bennett said on Sunday.

From the photos distributed and published of the Oaknins in local media, they look like a normative couple, even in their Egged uniforms. They could be any one of us, carefree tourists dining and taking photos one minute and in a Turkish jail the next, accused of spying and facing years in prison.

The Oaknins nightmare needs to come to a quick ending as soon as possible. Both Channel 12 and 13 quoted Israeli officials saying that if the couple is not freed in the next two or three days, the likelihood that they will go on trial and be convicted of spying will dramatically increase.

It’s unclear whether Erdogan, who has been openly hostile toward Israel, is involved in the case and using the Oaknins as pawns in an effort to wield more influence on the Israeli-Palestinian front and on Muslim claims to Jerusalem in particular.

But all efforts should be made by Israel to reach out to him. Earlier this year, Herzog and Erdogan spoke on the phone for 40 minutes, the first call between the Turkish president and an Israeli official since 2017.

We certainly hope that behind the scenes, another phone conversation is taking place between the two, one that results in the release of the Oaknins and their safe return to Israel.