Israeli couple freed from Turkish prison and returned to Israel

Nothing was promised to President Erdogan in return for the couple’s release, said the foreign ministry spokesperson.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

An Israeli couple jailed in Istanbul nine days ago for alleged spying offenses was flown back to Israel early Thursday morning after intensive diplomatic efforts succeeded in convincing the Turkish authorities of their innocence.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Chayat told 103FM’s morning show that it had been a joint effort of the foreign ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, President Yitzhak Herzog, the embassy and consular staff in Turkey and others to free the pair, Mordi and Natali Oknin, Egged bus drivers from Modiin.

“Our thanks also go to Turkey and the president of Turkey, who understood the situation and helped us solve it,” Chayat said.

He refused to divulge details of the diplomatic efforts, saying that “it was too early” to do so, but emphasized that many tracks were used simultaneously to reach the right Turkish ears. Their success also stemmed from “years of ties, of understanding the local culture.” No foreign governments were involved in the negotiations, he added.

Neither was anything promised to President Recep Erdogan in return, according to the spokesperson.

“I think that this solves a crisis that could have grown a lot bigger because of this, so it was in everyone’s interest to finish this, and finish it quickly,” he explained.

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Erdogan has recently made a few overtures that were seen as seeking to warm up ties with Israel, which haven’t borne much fruit, at least publicly. This incident, whether manufactured or not, may help him in these efforts. It is certainly true that Prime Minister Bennett is expecting to speak with Erdogan Thursday to thank him personally, and the conversation naturally promises to be a warm one.

The foreign ministry staff was on tenterhooks until the Oknins were off Turkish soil, said Chayat. Considering that the ministry knew since Wednesday afternoon that they were going to be freed, the staff was “pretty surprised that it really stayed under the [media] radar until the plane took off – and it was very good that it was like that,” he said, since “publicizing the release too early could have harmed the process.”

The Oknins had been visiting Istanbul and took pictures of President Erdogan’s palace from the tallest tower in Europe that is a new tourist site in the capital, not knowing that this was illegal. A waitress in a restaurant heard them talking about their pictures and reported them to the police, who arrested them on suspicion of espionage.

There was some very tough talk in recent days by Turkish administration officials against the couple, despite vehement Israeli denials that the Oknins worked for any government agency. The prime minister himself said Sunday that “these are two innocent civilians who have been mistakenly caught up in a complex situation.”

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Both Bennett and Foreign Minster Yair Lapid called the Oknin’s children Thursday to congratulate them on their parents’ release, and thank them for their “restraint,” which Bennett called “very critical in these days.”

Lapid had told the family Wednesday afternoon of the imminent release, but they didn’t breathe a hint of it to anyone when he explained the extreme sensitivity of the situation.

Upon arriving in their home, the relieved Oknins thanked everyone possible for their release, including the prime minister, foreign minister, president, God and the Turks.

“We’re OK. Thank you, everyone… We have leaders who know how to take care of problems,” said Mordi Oknin from the balcony of his apartment. “The Turks treated us fine, and I thank them for their cooperation.”