On Friday July 27 a developing story emerged that the US had asked Israel to release a Turkish woman in exchange for the release of a US pastor held in Turkey. The extraordinary set of agreements comes despite Turkish relations with Washington and Israel being at a difficult point, without a Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv.
Ynet reported: “US President Donald Trump personally asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month to release a Turkish woman suspected of helping Hamas who had been arrested during a visit to Israel, as part of a secret deal with Turkey to secure the release of a detained American pastor, according to a report in the Washington Post.”
In June Turkish media reported that a Turkish woman had been detained in Israel. “On June 11, Ozkan, 27, was arrested by Israeli police at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv while returning to Turkey.” She was initially denied access to a lawyer, Turkish sources said, but later on July 8 Israeli media claimed she would be indicted. An official was quoted as saying she was “arrested on suspicion of posing a threat to national security and having ties to terror organizations, and was handed over to security forces.” The actual charges appeared quite small, relating to perfume, and several hundred dollars in cash transferred.
Then, suddenly, Ozkan was released and arrived in Turkey on July 15. “I would like to thank our President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he was kind enough to be very interested in my case,” she said on arrival. She had been given back her passport in Israel and left even though a trial was supposedly still pending. At first this seemed like an easy way to paper over a case that might further erode Israel-Turkey relations.
Then news of a more complex deal emerged. Donald Trump took a keen interest in the case of a US pastor held in Turkey. In April he tweeted “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” US officials were in a full court press to help get him released. On July 18 he wrote “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”
Brunson was moved to house arrest on July 25. But Trump was angered hat he wasn’t released. “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
With Ebru in custody in Israel in early July the new report at The Washington Post claimed that a deal was in the works. “The deal was a carom shot, personally sealed by Trump, to trade a Turkish citizen imprisoned on terrorism charges in Israel for Brunson’s release,” the article says. On July 14, after the NATO summit, Trump went golfing and then called Netanyahu. Supposedly the conversation touched on “security and diplomatic issues arising from regional developments, chief most among them, of course, Syria and Iran.” But the report indicates that Trump also discussed Ozkan. “Israeli sources have confirmed the request. It was also stated that this release has been part of a deal for release of American pastor Brunson in Turkey,” a Turkish media report says.
Carol Leonnig tweeted Friday that Israeli officials confirmed the Washington Post report. Israeli media tweeted the same. But Leonnig noted Friday “Trump thought he struck a deal with Turkey’s strongman to win pastor’s freedom. Now Turkey denying their president promised Trump he would help release Brunson.”
Anger as deal falls apart
Trump, who prides himself on being a deal maker, was furious that the deal “fell apart,” the report indicates. This is the background of his July 26 tweet threatening sanctions on Turkey. Trump had actually been “hoodwinked” by Turkey. If the reports are accurate it indicates that once the Turkish woman was safely back that Ankara saw no reason to release the pastor to anything more than house arrest.
Turkey has sought to deny the deal existed now. Hurriyet and Anadolu reports that an official said: “We have seen media reports claiming that a deal was made between Turkey and the United States to secure the release of Ebru Özkan, a Turkish citizen imprisoned in Israel on bogus terrorism charges, in return for the release of Andrew Brunson by a Turkish court,” a senior Turkish official said July 27. “Those reports are completely baseless. The Turkish government has no intention of meddling in the affairs of the country’s independent judiciary,” the official said.