Israeli detained in Turkey: Do they think spies appear in bus company commercials?

Natali Oknin, held on suspicion of espionage, has featured in several ads for her employer, Egged; lawyer files appeal with Turkish court against couple’s detention

Natali Oknin appears in an advertisement for the Egged bus company. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Natali Oknin appears in an advertisement for the Egged bus company. (Screenshot/YouTube)

An Israeli woman being held by Turkey on suspicion of espionage after photographing the president’s palace protested the charges against her in a conversation with her lawyer on Tuesday, stressing she is a bus driver who has appeared in company commercials and had no connection to spying.

Natali Oknin and her husband Mordy, both drivers for Israel’s Egged bus company, were detained in Istanbul last week for photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace. The couple insists they did not know it was illegal to photograph the palace.

The couple’s Israeli lawyer, Nir Yaslovizh, met with Natali for the first time on Tuesday.

“She told me, ‘How do they not understand that I’m just a simple woman who has no connection to espionage?'” Yaslovizh said after their meeting.

“Do they know I was in a commercial for Egged? Do they think a spy would be in a commercial for Egged? What are they even talking about?” she told her lawyer.

Natali appeared in a commercial for Egged released earlier this year. The advertisement touting the company’s technology shows her welcoming a passenger onto a bus.

Natali also appears in another Egged advertisement to recruit new drivers.

Natali Oknin appears in an Egged bus company advertisement to recruit new drivers. (Egged)

In 2018, Egged posted pictures of the Oknins on its company Facebook page, describing them as drivers for the company’s Tel Aviv Central Bus Station branch and listing their routes.

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Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins are Israeli spies.

Yaslovizh said he filed an appeal against the couple’s remand into custody for 20 days. A Turkish court remanded their detention on Friday, surprising Israeli authorities, who expected the couple to be quickly deported.

Yaslovizh said a ruling in the case was expected in the next 7-10 days.

The couple is being held separately; Yaslovizh visited Mordy Oknin on Monday.

Israeli consul officials visited both members of the couple for the first time on Tuesday.

The Foreign Ministry said that Natali was visited by Israel’s consul in Istanbul, Ronen Levy, while the consul-general in Turkey, Udi Eitam, visited Mordy. The diplomats gave the pair clothes and other supplies.

Levy and Eitam also met with prison authorities to verify that the Oknins were getting appropriate treatment in prison, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz updated the Oknins’ family after the visit, a statement added.

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.

Yaslovizh declined to respond to Soylu’s comments, saying he was dealing only with the legal matters at hand.

Turkish authorities detained the couple, residents of Modiin, on Thursday after they photographed Erdogan’s palace 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.

Sunday reports said that diplomatic efforts were being kept low-key in the hope of not causing an escalation that could then become much more complex to resolve. Officials are hoping that Turkey will quietly expel the couple, bringing the incident to an end. 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.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog have all spoken with the couple’s family and worked to secure their release.

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