Turkish president raises hopes of improved bilateral ties with Israel

Israeli prime minister thanks Erdogan for his role in releasing Israeli couple

Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin are greeted upon their arrival home following their detention in Turkey on suspicion of espionage. Photograph: Gil Cohen-Magen/ AFP via Getty

Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin are greeted upon their arrival home following their detention in Turkey on suspicion of espionage. Photograph: Gil Cohen-Magen/ AFP via Getty

 

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a series of rare phone conversations with Israeli leaders, has raised hopes for improved bilateral ties, only hours after he ordered the release of an Israeli couple suspected of espionage.

Mr Erdogan told his Israeli counterpart Yitzhak Herzog on Thursday that Turkish-Israeli relations were important for security and stability in the Middle East.

“Disagreements could be reduced to a minimum if both sides acted in mutual understanding in terms of bilateral and regional issues,” he said.

Earlier on Thursday, Mordi and Natali Oknin arrived back in Israel, eight days after being arrested after taking photographs of Mr Erdogan’s palace while on a holiday in Istanbul.

The couple, both bus drivers, denied they were working for Israeli intelligence, and Israeli leaders worked behind the scenes to bring about their release before the affair could further damage the already strained relations between the two countries.

In 2010, nine activists aboard a Turkish ship trying to break the siege on Gaza were killed by Israeli naval commandos. In 2018, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador in protest against the killing of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border.

Relations deteriorated further earlier this year after Turkey convicted a number of Arab students in the country of working for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

Israel feared the arrest of the Oknin couple would result in trumped- up charges to avenge the Mossad student spy ring.

No concessions

Despite intense media speculation, Israeli officials insisted that no concessions were made to bring about the release of the couple, describing the incident as a “Kafkaesque” mistake by local authorities in Istanbul.

As the affair dragged on prime minister Naftali Bennett urged the Oknin family to maintain a low profile and politicians were asked not to comment or criticise Turkey.

Over the past week there were growing calls in the Israeli media for a boycott of tourism to Turkey, and not everyone was happy that the Israeli leaders went out of their way to praise Mr Erdogan for his role in bringing an end to the affair.

The hope now is that Thursday’s phone calls, following the release of the couple, could pave the way for improved relations to end the years of hostility.

On Thursday night, in the first conversation between an Israeli prime minister and Turkish president since 2013, Mr Bennett thanked Mr Erdogan for his “personal involvement” in returning the Oknins to Israel and “expressed his appreciation” for Turkish officials who helped resolve the “humanitarian matter”, praising the “communication lines between the countries, which worked efficiently and discreetly during the crisis”.

And Mr Herzog “welcomed the desire for Turkey and Israel to hold a comprehensive dialogue on bilateral and regional issues related to regional peace”.