Natali and Mordi Oknin, an Israeli couple jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, arrive home in Modiin, Nov. 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90) (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Natali and Mordi Oknin

Mordi and Natali Oknin are back home in Modiin.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

Mordi and Natali Oknin returned to their home in Modiin on Thursday morning after Turkish authorities released the couple.

“Thank you to the prime minister and the foreign minister. Thank you to the president of the country. Thank you to everyone in Israel. Thank you to everyone who helped and supported [us]. Thank you to [Modiin] Mayor Hayim Bibas and the Modiin Municipality, the Egged [bus company] family. Thank you to [attorney] Nir Yaslovitzh,” Natali told reporters outside her home.

The couple were arrested on suspicion of espionage after photographing Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, a residence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photographing the palace is illegal. The Oknins said they didn’t know that it was illegal and that they only took innocent tourist photos, which they then shared on a family WhatsApp group.

Although Turkish police recommended that the couple be deported, prosecutors sought to charge the Oknins for espionage. Israeli fears that Erdogan might exploit the Oknins for political purposes were heightened when a judge agreed with prosecutors to extend the couple’s remand. In October, Turkish authorities announced the arrest of 15 people they claimed were members of a Mossad network spying on Palestinians in Turkey. Erdogan’s government staunchly supports Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Oknins, both Egged bus drivers, were held in custody for nine days while Israeli officials worked to secure their release. Officials from the Israeli consulate in Istanbul had access to Mordy and Natali and provided them with clothing and other supplies.

Haaretz reported that officials in Jerusalem enlisted the help of an unspecified third country to help pressure the Turks. But Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat denied other countries were involved.

According to Hebrew media reports, Turkish authorities agreed to free the Oknins on Wednesday evening, but that detail was blocked from publication by Israel’s military censor. The reports added that this was known to the Oknin family, who kept it a secret. Government officials reportedly feared that a premature announcement would derail the couple’s freedom.

Israel Hayom cited a senior Israeli diplomatic official who stressed that “the Turks were not rewarded for the Oknin couple’s release.”

The Oknins were flown home on a private jet arranged by the Israeli government. They were accompanied on the flight by Foreign Ministry Consular Department head Rina Djerassi-Dvir and Human Resources Department head Chaim Levi.

A statement issued by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announcing the couple’s release made a point of thanking Erdogan and his government “for their cooperation” and the Oknin family for “for their strength during this complicated time and for their cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Turkey has long been a popular travel destination for Israelis. The Jerusalem Post reported that “of the 383,000 Israelis who left the country last month, 11.5% went to Turkey.” Whether or not the Oknin affair will impact Israeli tourism in Turkey remains to be seen.

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