Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Monday with Mordy and Natali Oknin, the Israeli couple freed last week from eight days of detention in Turkey for suspected espionage.
“How good it is that you came home. I am so happy to see you,” Bennett said while embracing the couple at his office in Jerusalem.
“I saw your prayers and was very moved,” he told Natali.
After arriving home Thursday morning, Natali said that while she was detained, she could hear the muezzin’s call to prayer from a nearby mosque. “I closed my ears and shouted loudly — please God save me,” she said.
The couple were arrested earlier this month 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.
They were freed Thursday following intensive diplomatic efforts and returned to Israel.
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.
“We are both Egged drivers. We are proud of our work. I love my passengers and want to get back to work already. I want to get back to bus line 83, to all my passengers who know me and support me,” Natali said at a press conference on Thursday morning.
Their return to Israel ended a saga that had involved concrete fears the pair would be in Turkish jail for many years.
A transcript of a call between Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and the family on Thursday showed the couple’s joy and gratitude at returning home and being reunited with their children.
A joint statement from Bennett and Lapid announcing their release thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We thank the president of Turkey and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” the Thursday statement said, adding that President Isaac Herzog had also significantly contributed to efforts to end the impasse.
Bennett spoke with Erdogan on Thursday by phone to thank him for the release of the couple.
The husband and wife were held separately and granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.
The delicate diplomacy to secure their release was complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.