Justice minister: Couple arrested ‘for no reason’

Bennett speaks with relatives of Israeli couple held by Turkey

Prime Minister’s Office says premier called members of Oknin family ‘to express he stands with them’ and to thank them for their ‘responsibility and restrained conduct’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke on Wednesday with relatives of Mordy and Natali Oknin, an Israeli couple who are being held in Turkey on suspicion of espionage.

“The prime minister wanted to again strengthen members of the family, who are dealing with a very complex situation right now, and to express that he stands with them,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

The PMO said Bennett thanked the family for their “responsibility and restrained conduct,” and updated them on the efforts to resolve the matter.

Mordy and Natali Oknin, residents of Modiin, were detained in Istanbul last week after they photographed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul while on tour and sent the photo to their family. Media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the palace.

Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, are Israeli spies.

Earlier Wednesday, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that it was “clear to all” that there was no reason for Turkish authorities to arrest the couple.

Mordy Oknin (lef)t, and Natali Oknin (righ)t. (Courtesy/Facebook)

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Sa’ar declined to comment directly on remarks from Turkey’s interior minister the day before in which he asserted that the Israelis were spying.

“It is clear to everyone that the Israelis were arrested for no reason,” Sa’ar told Kan’s radio station.

“We are working under the leadership of the Foreign Ministry to have them released as soon as possible,” Sa’ar said, noting that President Isaac Herzog was also involved and that activities were being conducted “quietly.”

In the first public comment by a top Turkish official on the affair, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on Tuesday claimed that the Oknins had “focused” on Erdogan’s residence while photographing it and “marked it.”

He told reporters that prosecutors believe the Israelis committed “what can be called diplomatic and military espionage,” but that the court will decide.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, on November 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

Some Israeli analysts see Soylu’s remarks as showing a worrying increase in the weight given to the case in Turkey, complicating diplomatic efforts for a resolution that Israel had hoped to keep low-key and behind the scenes. Soylu is the No. 2 in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, making him a candidate to succeed the long-serving Turkish president.

In addition, Soylu’s reference to the courts is a concern as it may indicate that a diplomatic resolution won’t be permitted. The sometimes slow-movement of the Turkish court system could also condemn the Oknins to an extended period of detention before there are any developments, the Ynet news site assessed.

Turkey is now seen as raising the stakes, which would require more open high-level diplomacy, including the direct intervention of Herzog, possibly in a phone call with Erdogan.

Screen capture from video of Mordy Oknin (left), and his wife Natali (right), with an unidentified Turkish man, on a street in Istanbul, November 2021. (Channel 12 news)

On Wednesday morning, Turkish media reported the identity of a local man who was also arrested with the Oknins and was apparently their tour guide. According to those reports, the man learned Hebrew from his former wife, who is Jewish.

The delicate diplomacy is further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

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