Israeli diplomats visit couple held in Turkey; Mossad chief said to get involved

Turkish minister says prosecutors believe Mordy and Natali Oknin carried out ‘what can be called diplomatic, military espionage’ when they photographed president’s palace

Illustrative: The Silivri prison complex, outside Istanbul, April 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Mehmet Guzel)
Illustrative: The Silivri prison complex, outside Istanbul, April 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Mehmet Guzel)

Israeli diplomats paid their first visit on Tuesday to an Israeli couple being held by Turkish authorities on suspicion of espionage after they photographed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul last week.

The Foreign Ministry said that Natali Oknin was visited by Israel’s consul in Istanbul, Ronen Levy, while the consul-general in Turkey, Udi Eitam, visited her husband Mordy Oknin. 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.

Mossad chief David Barnea also spoke with his Turkish counterpart about the situation, the Kan public broadcaster reported, saying that Israeli sources were split on how long it would take to resolve the matter.

Meanwhile, 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 “signaled” to each other.

He told reporters that prosecutors believe the Israelis committed “what can be called diplomatic and military espionage,” but that “the court will make its decision.”

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, November 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

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

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. 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.

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

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.

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

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.

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