Behind the scenesOfficials say Israel has given nothing in return

Media blackout and smokescreens: How Israel released a couple from Turkish detention

Mordy and Natali Oknin’s family reportedly knew of the progress for many hours, but all involved kept silent; phone call by Natali to family was released publicly as diversion

Mordy and Natali Oknin embrace their daughter Shiraz after landing back in Israel on November 18, 2021 (Screencapture/Airport's Authority)
Mordy and Natali Oknin embrace their daughter Shiraz after landing back in Israel on November 18, 2021 (Screencapture/Airport's Authority)

The family of the Israeli couple that was detained for over a week in Turkey as suspected spies knew hours ahead of time about their imminent release, but the news was hushed up over fears it might disrupt the process.

As Mordy and Natali Oknin arrived home in the central city of Modiin on Thursday morning, details emerged of the final behind-the-scenes efforts that ended their ordeal.

A phone call Natali held with her family was reportedly released publicly to the media on Wednesday as a diversion to veil the progress that had been made toward their release. Meanwhile, Israeli officials have insisted that Jerusalem has not been required to give Ankara anything in return for the release.

The Oknins were arrested last Tuesday on accusations of espionage after they photographed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace, as thousands of other tourists reportedly do. Israel swiftly and firmly denied they were engaged in spying, saying that the couple, both Egged bus drivers, were just tourists.

There had been concrete fears that the couple could spend many years in prison after a Turkish court instructed that they be detained for a further 20 days and a Turkish minister publicly accused them of being spies.

After a nerve-wracking week, at 4:40 p.m. on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the family of the Oknin couple and told them that Mordy and Natali were expected to be released from jail soon, but they couldn’t speak about it publicly.

Natali and Mordy Oknin (C), an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, arrive at their home in Modiin, November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The major development was kept away from the press to prevent any potential disruption of the delicate cooperation with Turkish authorities. The couple’s attorney, Nir Yaslovitzh, who had been providing regular updates on the situation from Turkey, canceled all his scheduled interviews with the media. The Foreign Ministry also asked the military censor to impose a media blackout on the matter.

The Oknins’ family continued to receive visits by various public officials, yet were careful to make no mention of the optimistic news imparted to them.

In order to veil the developments, later the same evening a recording of Natali speaking with her family was released to media as a diversion, according to reports. The recording was of the first direct conversation Natali had with her family in Israel, held earlier on Wednesday, at a time when the release of the couple was still not finalized and their family was unaware of any progress.

Early on Thursday morning, the government sent a private jet to pick up the Oknins, who arrived in Israel at 6:20 a.m. The plane is a US-registered jet that has been used by Israel in the past for state matters, Ynet reported.

It was only after the plane was in the air that news of the release began to trickle out.

“We thank the President of Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a joint statement, adding that President Isaac Herzog had also significantly contributed to efforts to end the saga.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) stands alongside Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

From the start, Israeli officials had aimed to resolve the issue quietly, fearing that a diplomatic escalation would only complicate the affair.

Though initially there was little media coverage of the matter in Turkey, on Tuesday its Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu publicly alleged that the Oknins were spies who had targeted Erdogan’s residence. Local press also began to cover the affair, though some media figures openly criticized authorities for detaining the couple.

The minister’s remarks prompted Israel to further increase diplomatic activities, spurred on by the need to end the case before it escalated any further, Israeli officials said.

That was done on two separate tracks, with the charge d’affaires of the Israeli embassy in Turkey, Irit Lillian, contacting Ibrahim Kalin, a close adviser to Erdogan, and Mossad chief David Barnea communicating with his Turkish counterpart, the Walla news website reported.

Foreign Ministry officials said they stressed to Turkish authorities that the crisis had to end before it ballooned any further.

Ibrahim Kalin, chief advisor to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gestures as he talks to The Associated Press in Istanbul, October 19, 2019. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

Already on Tuesday evening, Kalin had informed Lillian that there was no state motive behind the incident and that it was not coming from the top, but instead was a local incident that had grown complicated. Turkish authorities urged the Israelis to allow them space to resolve the issue, according to the report.

By Wednesday, Kalin had told Israeli officials that the couple would be set free.

“Erdogan understood that there is no need to enter into a conflict with Israel and that he could also gain some benefit from the affair,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told Walla.

Despite the intensive efforts, there were no direct top-level diplomatic contacts between the two countries, officials stressed.

Israel’s President Herzog spoke by phone with senior Turkish officials, but not with Erdogan himself. Officials noted that Israel’s swift denial that the couple were spies — which came from Bennett, Lapid, and Herzog — had a positive influence on the contacts with Turkey.

President Isaac Herzog attends an event in northern Israel, on October 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israel made a decision last week to not involve any other countries and to resolve the issue directly with Turkey, Walla reported. Although officials weighed appealing to Britain or Azerbaijan, the idea was dropped.

Another development that was kept quiet was the reason for the cancelation of a planned trip by Lapid to Budapest that had been scheduled for Wednesday evening. Lapid decided in the morning of that day to abort the visit so that he could continue working on the Oknins’ release, but the reason was kept from the media, Walla reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat expressed his gratitude to Turkey and Erdogan, telling Radio 103FM on Thursday that they had “understood the situation and helped us resolve it. It rested on years of connections and on an understanding of local culture and processes. This is how diplomacy is done.”

Haiat similarly said that no third-party country was involved in reaching the resolution.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a media conference at the G20 summit in Rome, on October 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

He admitted that officials were amazed that the release was kept hidden so successfully.

“We were quite surprised that it stayed under the radar until the plane took off. It was good that it happened that way; we thought that premature publications could harm the process,” he said.

“I don’t know of anything that was promised in return,” Haiat said of speculation that the release could be part of a covert deal. “Everyone had an incentive to end this quickly and we are happy that is what happened.”

Though Israel was not required to give Turkey anything to secure the release, media pundits assessed that Israel will make some sort of gesture.

Bennett was reportedly set to speak on the phone with Erdogan on Thursday to express gratitude.

Though Israel and Turkey have diplomatic ties, their relations are strained and neither country has an ambassador posted, which had initially complicated the process.

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