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PM on Israelis detained in Turkey: ‘Innocent citizens, we are doing all we can’

Bennett, Lapid hold urgent consultations on attempts to secure release of couple held for taking photos of Erdogan’s palace; lawyer hopes pair won’t be indicted and can go home

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 14, 2021. (Ariel Schalit / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 14, 2021. (Ariel Schalit / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting that he was working to secure the release of an Israeli couple detained in Turkey for taking photographs of the president’s palace.

“They are two innocent citizens who accidentally got into a complicated situation,” Bennett said. “I spoke with the family yesterday and we are doing everything we can to resolve the issue. I ask the family, despite the great difficulty, to be strong. We are with you. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be right to expand [on the matter] at the moment.”

Turkish authorities detained Natali and Mordy Oknin, residents of Modiin, on Thursday for photographing Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul. The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do so.

Earlier on Sunday, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid held urgent consultations on the issue.

Bennett and Lapid reviewed the efforts made over the weekend and agreed to continue to work to find a solution as soon as possible. Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz, National Security Council head Eyal Hulata and other officials participated in the talks.

Lapid is leading the effort to secure the couple’s release and is in talks with Israel’s consular representative in Ankara.

Mordy and Natali Oknin were arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan’s palace (Facebook)

A Turkish court on Friday extended the couple’s remand by 20 days, with local authorities saying they suspected the Oknins of espionage, as the episode appeared to be expanding into a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

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

Meanwhile, the Israeli lawyer representing the pair said Sunday that he hoped that no indictment would be filed and the pair would be allowed to return home.

“Tremendous efforts are currently being made by all parties involved. Things are being conducted in a dignified manner. The procedure is being conducted properly and in accordance with the rules,” Nir Yaslovizh, the couple’s Israeli lawyer, told the Kan public broadcaster.

“There is no indictment and we are attempting to avoid one being filed, and attempting to get them returned to Israel. If there were no chance [of success], I would not have taken the case and traveled to Istanbul,” the attorney said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Turkish attorney representing the Oknins will visit their detained local tour guide on Sunday to try to ascertain further details about the case, Channel 13 news reported.

The guide has said that he asked the couple not to take pictures and explained that it was dangerous, but says they did not listen to his advice.

Turkey is said to be deliberating between bringing charges of espionage against the couple, or charging them with a lesser offense of engaging in acts that harm the country’s national security, Israeli TV reported Saturday night.

Channel 12 reported, without citing sources, that Turkish prosecutors were intent on charging the couple. The news channel also reported that the Israeli government feared that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would exploit the crisis to extract some sort of price from Israel for the release of the couple.

Walla news reported Saturday that Israel has not received an explanation from Turkish officials for the arrest and detention of the Oknins, and officials increasingly suspect the arrests were made for political points.

The Israeli consul in the city — there is no ambassador — has yet to meet with the Oknins and was attempting to do so as soon as possible, according to Channel 12.

The decision to keep the couple behind bars following their arrest surprised Israeli officials, who had been under the assumption that the court would order their immediate deportation from the country at Friday’s remand hearing.

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)

Turkish prosecutors told the court that the couple is suspected of spying, claiming they not only photographed Erdogan’s palace but also adjacent security checkpoints and cameras, even supposedly highlighting them before sending the photos to a third party.

The couple insists they only photographed the palace because they were enamored by it and sent the photos to their relatives, not knowing that doing so was illegal.

After taking the photo, Natali Oknin sent it to a family WhatsApp group with the caption: “Such a nice house.”

Citing local authorities, the Turkish news publication Daily Sabah reported that the couple and the tour guide may face charges of “political and military espionage.”

The family only found out that the two had been arrested when they did not return home as scheduled.

Meanwhile, the couple’s family has launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the upcoming legal battle.

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