“Turkey is a member of NATO. It is also a hostage-taking state sponsor of terror. Soon, the Biden administration is going to have to decide where it stands—with Turkey or with Turkey’s victims” states Caroline Glick in Newsweek.
Last Thursday, two Israeli tourists in Istanbul, Natalie and Mordi Oaknin, became the regime’s latest hostages. The two were arrested at a tourist site for the « crime » of taking a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace.
The ridiculousness of the charge is stunning. Thousands of tourists photograph Erdogan’s palace every day. As one Israeli official put it, « Google has better pictures [of Erdogan’s palace] than those taken from afar by the Israeli couple. »
In breach of international law, Turkey didn’t inform Israel of the Oaknins’ arrest. Turkish police spokesmen initially indicated the couple would be deported at their remand hearing on Friday. Instead, Turkish prosecutors announced they intend to charge the two with « espionage. » The judge remanded them to custody until their trial opens. So at least until mid-December, the Oaknins will remain in Turkish jail.
For decades, Turkey was Israel’s closest regional ally. Military cooperation and intelligence sharing were intimate and intense. All of this began to change after Erdogan first took power in December 2002. Erdogan views himself as a neo-Ottoman Islamic imperialist. He is a vicious anti-Semite. Piece by piece, over the years Erdogan tore apart Turkey’s alliance with the Jewish state and transferred Turkey’s loyalties to Israel’s terrorist enemies—first and foremost, Hamas.
Erdogan effectively ended the alliance completely in 2010, when he sponsored a flotilla to Gaza for the purpose of challenging Israel’s maritime blockade of the Hamas-controlled mini-terror state. The flotilla was organized by Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), an organization identified by Israel, France and Denmark as a terror group affiliated with al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
IHH members on the deck of the main ship, the MV Mavi Marmara, violently assaulted Israeli naval commandos as they boarded. Several Israeli soldiers were wounded. Nine Turkish assailants—eight of whom were IHH members—were killed.
Erdogan recalled Turkey’s ambassador to Israel and demanded that Israel pay reparations to the families of the IHH assailants killed on board the MV Mavi Marmara. In the years that followed, Erdogan intensified his support for Hamas. Hamas moved its main operational headquarters to Turkey. From the NATO member state, senior Hamas terrorists direct dozens of terror cells in both Gaza and Judea and Samaria.
In addition to hosting Hamas’ operational headquarters, Erdogan has also targeted Jerusalem—especially the mosques on the Temple Mount—for political subversion and influence. Turkish government-aligned NGOs have spent tens of millions of dollars on projects in Jerusalem generally, and the Temple Mount specifically. Their purpose is to win the loyalty of Jerusalem’s Arab population and to transform Turkey into the dominant power on the Temple Mount.
During last May’s Hamas terror offensive against Israel, Erdogan and his allies raised the prospect of sending military forces, including fighter jets to Jerusalem, to fight Israel on behalf of Hamas.
In recent months, speculation arose that Erdogan was reassessing his animosity toward Israel after Turkey and Israel both aided Azerbaijan in its war against Iranian and Russian-backed Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. But the Oaknins’ arrest indicates those hopes were misplaced.
This brings us to the U.S. The Oaknins aren’t the first tourists who have been arrested and held on trumped up charges in Turkey in recent years. A dozen German tourists have been arrested for political reasons.
The best-known case of the practice, by far, was the two-year incarceration of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Prior to his arrest in October 2016, Brunson served as a pastor in Turkey for two decades. After his arrest, Brunson was held in inhumane conditions. He was only charged 18 months after his arrest—with espionage.
Due to the strategic importance of U.S.-Turkey relations, throughout most of Brunson’s captivity, the Trump administration initially tried to appease Erdogan in order to secure Brunson’s release.
In a meeting in July 2018 between Erdogan and then-President Donald Trump, Erdogan said he would free Brunson if Trump convinced then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure the release of Ebru Ozkan, a Turkish national who was then held in an Israeli jail pending trial for running a money laundering operation for Hamas.
Trump called Netanyahu right after his meeting with Erdogan. Ozkan was deported to Turkey shortly thereafter. But sensing U.S. weakness, Erdogan decided to renege on the deal and up the ante instead.
Erdogan demanded the U.S. extradite Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric residing in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of organizing a failed coup to overthrow him in 2016. As he put it in 2017, « The pastor [Brunson] we have is on trial. Yours is not—he is living in Pennsylvania. …You can give him right away. »
Realizing he was being extorted, Trump announced in August 2018 that he was instituting tariffs on Turkish exports to the U.S. Brunson was then released two months later.
Israel reportedly fears Turkey will demand Israeli concessions in Jerusalem and in relation to Hamas in exchange for the Oaknins’ release. But the truth is that it is Turkey, not Israel, that should be worried. Rather than surrendering to Erdogan’s expected blackmail, Israel can, and should, play hardball. Israel has a lot of leverage over Turkey. For starters, it can issue a travel warning against Turkey and massively diminish Israeli tourism to Turkey.
Then there is the issue of Turkish airlines’ flights to Tel Aviv. Since 2013, Israeli carriers have been effectively banned from flying to Turkey. Erdogan effected this ban by prohibiting flight marshals from bearing arms. Israeli carriers will not fly without armed flight marshals. Israel has avoided retaliating to-date, despite the profitability of the routes. It could belatedly retaliate by banning Turkish airlines from flying to Tel Aviv.
Then there is Jerusalem. Rather than permit Turkey to expand its hostile activities in Israel’s capital, Israel could ban Turkish NGOs from operating in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Israel could easily couch this as a move on behalf of Jordan, which is concerned by the outsize role Turkey has arrogated to itself.
Another area Israel has massive leverage over Turkey is natural gas. Israel has built a natural gas alliance with its fellow East Mediterranean producers Greece and Cyprus. The three governments agreed to build a pipeline to Italy—bypassing Turkey—to sell natural gas to Europe. Earlier this year, then-Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel would cooperate with Turkey on the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas pipeline. That decision can, and should, be reversed so long as the Oaknins remain in custody.
Another area Israel could squeeze Turkey is in the international unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market. Israel has been considering relaxing restrictions on the export of its UAVs. Turkey is currently building up its position as a major UAV supplier. An Israeli move to expand its position in the market would significantly decrease Turkey’s market share, diminishing not only Erdogan’s foreign currency reserves, but decreasing his leverage with Russia and other major powers.
Israel’s ability to stare down Erdogan, both to secure the Oaknins’ speedy release from Turkish jail and to disabuse Erdogan of the notion that he is well served by taking Israeli hostages, is dependent to a large degree on U.S. support.
Following the Gaza flotilla, the UN set up a commission to investigate what happened. In 2011, the commission largely exonerated Israel from blame for the death of the Turkish passengers who attacked IDF commandos engaged in the lawful effort to enforce a lawful maritime blockade. That should have been the end of Erdogan’s demand for damages for the dead IHH attackers and the end of his assault on Israel. It certainly should have ended any thought in the Obama administration that it would be reasonable to pressure Israel to bow to Erdogan’s demands, apologize and pay indemnities to the families of the IHH assailants who attacked Israel’s naval forces.
But that isn’t what happened. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama visited Israel. At the end of his visit, as he stood on the tarmac before boarding Air Force One to depart the country, Obama demanded that Netanyahu apologize to Erdogan in Obama’s presence. The men sat down in a trailer at the airport, where Obama called Erdogan and put Netanyahu on the phone. Netanyahu apologized. Israel agreed to pay into a fund for the dead IHH assailants. And Obama left Israel with a « diplomatic achievement. »
If President Joe Biden opts to follow in Obama’s footsteps and coerces Israel to accept whatever demands Erdogan makes to secure the Oaknins’ release, Biden won’t simply be placing the lives of every Israeli tourist in jeopardy. He will demonstrate to U.S. allies worldwide that the U.S. will exploit their vulnerabilities to join their enemies in harming them.
Caroline B. Glick is a senior columnist at Israel Hayom and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, (Crown Forum, 2014). From 1994 to 1996, she served as a core member of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Newsweek, November 17, 2021, Caroline Glick