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Israeli diplomats granted right to visit couple being held in Turkey

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid says Israel is ‘working around the clock’ to ensure the release of Natali and Mordy Oknin, who are being detained for photographing Erdogan’s palace

Mordy Oknin, left, and Natali Oknin, right. (Courtesy/Facebook)
Mordy Oknin, left, and Natali Oknin, right. (Courtesy/Facebook)

Israeli diplomats will be allowed to make a consular visit to Natali and Mordy Oknin, an Israeli couple being held in Turkish custody for photographing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Monday afternoon.

The ministry said that the embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul are working to find the earliest possible time for the visit.

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

Opening his Yesh Atid party faction meeting in the Knesset Monday afternoon, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel was “working around the clock” to ensure the couple’s release and asked lawmakers, ministers and Israeli media outlets to speak about the issue “responsibly” in order to ensure their safety.

Israeli officials believe the coming days will be critical in the attempt to secure the release of the Oknins, according to television reports on Sunday. Channel 12 and 13 both quoted officials as saying they believe that if the saga is not resolved in the next two days or three days, the couple could remain in Turkish custody for years.

Turkish authorities detained the couple, residents of Modiin, on Thursday after they photographed Erdogan’s palace and sent the photo to their family. The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do so, and media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the palace.

Mordy and Natali Oknin, arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan’s palace (Courtesy)

Despite expectations that would be released, a Turkish court on Friday extended the couple’s remand by 20 days, with local authorities saying they suspected the Oknins of espionage.

An attorney for the Oknins is set to appeal against prosecutors’ intentions to charge them with espionage and against the 20-day extension of their remand.

The 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 said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting that he was working to secure the Oknins’ release.

“They are two innocent citizens who accidentally got into a complicated situation,” Bennett said.

The arrests came a day after a bill to recognize the Armenian genocide was presented before the Knesset plenum for a preliminary discussion. Similar bill proposals have been submitted dozens of times in recent years, without advancing toward becoming law, making it unlikely to be connected to the arrests.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen during an official state visit to Angola at the presidential palace in Luanda, on October 18, 2021. (Osvaldo Silva/AFP)

Nonetheless, there are indications that Turkey does not intend to provoke a more serious spat. Erdogan has not publicly commented on the affair, nor has he made any demands from Israel. Turkish media has also given the case little attention beyond the initial arrests, with hardly any mention at all made on Sunday, according to Hebrew outlets.

Israeli tourists vacationing in Turkey told Hebrew media that while they are not noticing any particular animosity towards them, they are being cautious about what they photograph.

However, a Channel 13 news reporter was detained while broadcasting live from Turkey about the Oknins. The reporter, Ali Mograbi, was released after some 30 minutes, the outlet said.

Mograbi said it was noticeable that policemen were tailing him all day. When he started a live broadcast in the street they came and told him to stop. They then took him and made sure he deleted all the photos he had taken before releasing him and telling him not to leave the hotel, he said.

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