An Israeli couple held in Turkey for suspected espionage after photographing the president’s palace was set free early Thursday morning, returning to Israel on a private jet sent by the government to bring them home.
The development ended a week-long saga that had involved concrete fears Mordy and Natali Oknin would be in Turkish jail for many years.
Speaking to reporters at Ben Gurion Airport, they thanked President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Foreign Ministry staff, “and the entire nation of Israel.”
“We want to be with the family,” they added.
Earlier, a joint statement from Bennett and Lapid announced their release: “After joint efforts with Turkey, Mordy and Natali Oknin were released from prison and are on their way home to Israel.
“We thank the President of Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” the statement said, adding that Herzog had also significantly contributed to efforts to end the saga.
And they are here:
Credit: Airport authority pic.twitter.com/J9HBsEkCsh
— Tal Schneider טל שניידר تال شنايدر (@talschneider) November 18, 2021
The statement also thanked the couple’s family “for their strength during this complicated time and for their cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Bennett was reportedly set to speak on the phone with Erdogan Thursday to thank him for the release of the couple.
The Foreign Ministry sent a jet, along with two senior consular officials, to bring them 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.
Bennett and Lapid had spoken with the family members while they were waiting at the airport.
Speaking to their daughter Shiraz, Bennett said: “I told you we would do everything, and we did.”
Bennett thanked the family for their restraint and said it played a crucial part in the effort to bring them home. “I hope you have quieter days now and I am happy they are returning home.”
Herzog welcomed them home, tweeting: “How good it is to have you home. We warmly embrace you and your family.”
Their daughter, Shiraz, told Radio 103FM: “Thanks to our perfect state that made sure my parents would again be with me. We just want to say thank you to everyone, while my mother holds my hand.”
Shiraz said the couple still had to recover from the ordeal and said the family was “updating them about everything.”
Natali Oknin’s brother, Eran Peri, told the Kan public broadcaster that he had received a phone call from Lapid: “He told me they’re coming home and that we must keep it a secret. The fear was that the legal process would go on. We thought they would be sentenced to 10-15 years. At the same time, we knew the government was doing everything to return them.”
The couple’s lawyer, Nir Yaslovitzh, returned to Israel earlier in the night, without meeting his clients on Turkish soil.
“This is one of the most moving days of my life, I’m so excited,” he said. “A small number of people secretly exited the hotel. I was escorted like a Mossad agent out of the hotel. I’m exhausted.”
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 husband and wife were being held separately and granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.
Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, are spies. Natali had featured in advertising campaigns for Egged over the years, and their work colleagues dismissed the notion that they were spies as ridiculous.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Wednesday that it was “clear to all” that there was no reason for Turkish authorities to arrest the couple.
In addition to its own diplomatic efforts, Israel had enlisted the help of a third country in its attempts to free the couple, the Haaretz newspaper reported. The third country had reportedly worked to pressure Turkey’s leaders to free the Oknins.
However, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat told Radio 103FM that “no foreign countries were involved in this solution.”
In the first public comment by a top Turkish official on the affair, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed on Tuesday 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 media on Wednesday included widespread coverage of the case. The local media had previously only mentioned the arrests, in what was seen by Israel as a positive sign, because it would lessen public pressure on Turkish officials to hold the couple or make demands.
The delicate diplomacy was further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.
AFP contributed to this report.