Spy Games Between Israel and Turkey

November  22, 2021

In late October Turkish news outlets reported that fifteen individuals suspected of spying for Israel were arrested as part of a security operation. Reportedly, the suspects were spying on senior Hamas officials based in Turkey who were given Turkish citizenship, as well as some foreign students. The network allegedly relied on Palestinian and Syrian nationals living in Turkey. The allegation, not entirely far-fetched, was largely ignored by Israel.

On November 12, an Israeli tourist couple, Mordy Oknin and Natali Oknin, and a Turkish national were taken under custody on espionage charges for taking pictures of President Erdogan’s residence from the Camlica Tower in Istanbul on Friday. They were questioned by prosecutors before being referred to a court and a judge charged them with “political and military espionage” and extended their detention.

The couple’s detention triggered a flurry of diplomatic action by the Israeli government for their release. Thus, they were set free on November 18 and flew back home. That taking the pictures of royal and presidential palaces could constitute a crime was a shock to the Israelis. Because if it were, no foreign tourist would set foot in the streets around the Buckingham Palace, the White House, or take a lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

“Bridge of Spies” is a 2015 film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. The latter won the best-supporting actor Oscar for his remarkable performance in the role of KGB agent Rudolf Abel. Whenever I hear of a spy story, I cannot help remembering the movie. Fortunately for all concerned, Oknins’ six-day ordeal did not turn into another spy exchange story.

Turkey and Israel enjoyed good relations for decades. For a long time, this was a negative element in the myriad of complexities that have historically characterized Arab countries’ ambivalent attitudes towards Turkey. Gradually, however, they saw that Turkish-Israeli cooperation was not directed against their interests. Nevertheless, it gave them an excuse to criticize Turkey whenever the need arose. Today, it is a different picture. Turkey’s relations with both Arab countries and Israel have soured, but Israel has succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, likely to be followed by other Arab states.

With the Justice and Development Party (AKP) coming to power in Turkey in 2002, an element of uncertainty was introduced into this relationship. Israel was concerned about JDP’s Islamic roots and the importance it attached to the Palestinian question. Ankara was not pleased with reports of Israel’s support to Iraqi Kurds following the US invasion. However, the relationship continued without a major disturbance until the “one minute” incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 30, 2009, where Prime Minister Erdogan, in the presence of President Shimon Peres, denounced Israel for its attitude towards the Palestinians. This marked the beginning of the downturn.

The Davos incident was followed by the “Mavi Marmara” tragedy. A Turkish NGO organized a flotilla to take humanitarian assistance to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli maritime blockade. Israel warned them that it would not allow this, but the organizers were determined. The Turkish Government chose to let the initiative run its course. Finally, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) boarded the flagship of the flotilla, Mavi Marmara, and killed nine Turks. There was uproar in Turkey. Diplomatic representation was brought to the lowest level.

At the time, my summing up of the Mavi Marmara tragedy was the following: “The Turkish Government should not have allowed the flotilla to set sail and the Israeli Government should not have reacted with such violence and disproportionate use of force. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right.”

After Oknins’s release, President Erdogan spoke with President Herzog of Israel and Prime Minister Bennett. Readouts of the calls were issued by both sides. Since the Turkish President’s office does not routinely publish readouts of his calls with foreign leaders, the call with President Herzog was no doubt considered important.[i]

Despite the positive tone of the readouts, the major obstacle to any improvement in relations remains the overarching question of chemistry. Israel will continue to look at the JDP with suspicion because of its ideology, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It will remain on alert for new crises. Yesterday, a Palestinian man opened fire on a group of Israelis in Jerusalem, killing one and injuring four others. Israeli Minister of Public Security Omer Bar-Lev said the assailant was a member of Hamas’s political wing.

Turkey would probably wish to avoid new crises but will not meet Israel’s expectations. In the past, US interventions could make a difference. This is no longer the case. The six-day detention of the Oknins will leave a  negative impression on Israeli public opinion.

It is rumored that only days before the conquest of Byzantium by Mehmed the Conqueror, the city’s élites were “debating the gender of angels”. Since then, the phrase has often been used to stress how disconnected those élites can be from the realities of world politics. Although I am no part of such an élite, it occurred to me as I finished this post, that writing about Israeli-Turkish relations at this juncture is no different. I could not help thinking that this time it is we, the people of Turkey, who are totally disconnected not only from the realities of world politics but also from our own country’s realities, even the sinking of the Turkish economy. Because, with no sign of light at the end of what is a dark and long tunnel, a sterile, repetitious domestic debate goes on and on and on.


[i]   https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/speeches-statements/558/133555/phone-call-with-president-herzog-of-israel




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