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First call between Erdogan, Israeli premier since 2013

Bennett thanks Erdogan for releasing Israeli couple, in first-ever call between them

PM praises Turkish president’s ‘personal involvement,’ says strong communication between countries enabled efficient and discreet resolution of incident

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Composite/AP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Composite/AP)

In his first-ever phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked the Turkish leader on Thursday for his “personal involvement” in bringing about the release of an Israeli couple arrested and held for over a week in Istanbul.

Bennett expressed his gratitude to Erdogan “for his personal involvement in returning Natali and Mordy Oknin to Israel,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. “The Prime Minister expressed appreciation for the Turkish side’s handling of the issue, at all echelons, in recent days, in order to resolve the matter.”

Bennett said the Oknins’ release was “a humanitarian matter” that was now resolved and “commended the lines of communication between the two countries, which were efficient and discreet in a time of crisis.”

Bennett’s office told AFP it was the first such contact between an Israeli prime minister and Erdogan since 2013.

No readout was immediately available from the office of Erdogan, who until Thursday had reserved his personal communication with the new Israeli government to President Isaac Herzog.

The Oknins were released from Turkish prison late Wednesday night after eight days of detention for suspected espionage and returned to Israel on a private jet sent by the government to bring them home.

Israel firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, were spies. Natali had featured in advertising campaigns for Egged over the years, and their work colleagues dismissed the notion that they were involved in espionage as ridiculous.

Natali and Mordy Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, speak to journalists hours after they were released at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The development ended a saga that had involved concrete fears they would remain in Turkish prison for many years.

Unnamed political sources told the Kan public broadcaster that their release did not entail any deal with Ankara.

There was no official statement from Turkish officials. Turkey’s private DHA news agency reported that a Turkish citizen who was arrested along with the couple was also released, in an apparent reference to their tour guide.

The Foreign Ministry sent a jet, along with two senior consular officials, to bring the pair back, and they arrived in Israel shortly after 6 a.m. They then headed to their home in Modiin, where they were greeted by a crowd of relatives and supporters, many of whom wore T-shirts printed with a photograph of the couple.

The couple was arrested in Istanbul last week after they photographed 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.

Initial hopes that the misunderstanding would quickly be cleared up were dashed last week when a judge ordered them held for an additional 20 days on suspicion of espionage.

The delicate diplomacy to secure their release was complicated by the fact that neither government currently has an ambassador in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

AFP contributed to this report.

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