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With couple freed, Erdogan tells Herzog Turkey-Israel ties key to regional security

Presidents speak by phone, express desire for comprehensive dialogue as Natali and Mordy Oknin make it home after 8 days in detention

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Isaac Herzog (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) (AP)
President Isaac Herzog (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) (AP)

President Isaac Herzog spoke by phone with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, hours after an Israeli couple arrested last week in Istanbul as suspected spies landed in Israel.

Erdogan stressed in the conversation that he views ties with Israel as important to his country and “of key importance to the peace, stability, and security of the Middle East.”

Speaking in Turkish through an interpreter, Erdogan also expressed a desire for a comprehensive dialogue between the countries on bilateral and regional issues, according to a statement from the Israeli president’s office. Herzog welcomed the idea.

Herzog, speaking in English, thanked his counterpart for his personal involvement in freeing Mordy and Natali Oknin, who were arrested in Istanbul last Tuesday after they photographed Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul 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.

Israel firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, are spies. Natali had featured in advertising campaigns for Egged over the years, and their work colleagues dismissed the notion that they were spies as ridiculous.

Once close defense allies, the two regional powers saw relations fall apart over the past decade. However, over the past year, Erdogan and other Turkish officials have expressed a desire to repair ties, as Ankara finds itself increasingly boxed in by rivals in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.

In July, Erdogan congratulated Herzog on being sworn into his new role as Israel’s president, and similarly noted the importance of relations between the two countries for the sake of regional stability. A spokesman for Erdogan’s AKP party said that in the wake of the call, a “framework emerged” to improve ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Natali Oknin, who was held with her husband in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, is greeted upon her arrival home in the Israeli city of Modiin on November 18, 2021 following their release (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

“We want to thank all the people of Israel who supported our country and family. Thank you to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog,” said Natali Oknin in a press conference outside the family’s home in the city of Modiin after eight days of detention.

Earlier, a joint statement from Bennett and Lapid announcing their release thanked Erdogan.

“We thank the president of Turkey and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” the statement said, adding that Herzog had also significantly contributed to efforts to end the incident.

Bennett was reportedly set to speak with Erdogan on Thursday by phone as well to thank him for the release of the couple.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) sits next to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 7, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)

The Foreign Ministry sent a jet, along with two senior consular officials, to bring the pair back and they arrived in Israel shortly after 6 a.m. They headed to their home in Modiin, where they were greeted by a crowd of relatives and supporters, many of whom wore T-shirts printed with a photograph of the couple.

In Turkey, the husband and wife were held separately and granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.

Delicate diplomatic efforts to secure their release had been complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to the tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

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