Israeli couple accused of spying by Turkey released, sent home

Natali and Mordi Oaknin, who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, were returned to Israel on Thursday.

Mordi Oaknin, the husband of Natali Oaknin, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Mordi Oaknin, the husband of Natali Oaknin, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Natali and Mordi Oaknin thanked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for their efforts in gaining their release, after they were sent to jail in Istanbul for photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s home.

Bennett and Lapid called the Oaknins hours after they arrived in Israel on Thursday, and asked how they are feeling.

“We’re touched by everything that happened in Israel,” Mordi said. “Everyone worked together on the mission to get us out.”

“We don’t take what you did for granted… You were with us, “Natali added. “I heard that the minister and prime minister spoke with my family every day… We are eternally grateful. We’re strong, thanks to you.”

During the nine-day ordeal, some in Israel highlighted social media posts by Natali Oaknin against Bennett and supporting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

 Natali and Mordi Oaknin, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021.  (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90) Natali and Mordi Oaknin, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president's palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

However, she told Bennett: “I am proud you are in my government. I am proud of you. You saved our entire world.”

Bennett also commended Natali’s daughter, Shiraz Ben-Harush, “for showing so much responsibility and restraint.”

“Shiraz is an amazing girl,” Lapid said. “A 20-year-old girl led this whole thing!”

“Shiraz, we might recruit you to an elite unit,” Bennett quipped, and Shiraz responded: “I’m in.”

The Oaknins have a five-year-old son on the spectrum. When Lapid, who has an autistic daughter, inquired about how their son, Ofek, is doing, Natali said he was overjoyed to see his parents. Ben-Harush had said in earlier interviews that her brother did not know about the arrest.

Bennett also reminded the family to go to synagogue and say Birkat Hagomel, the blessing said when someone emerges from a dangerous situation.

The prime minister was expected to speak with Erdogan on Thursday, which would be the first phone call between Erdogan and an Israeli prime minister in five years. The Turkish president spoke with President Isaac Herzog earlier this year.

The couple’s release came after a concerted effort from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as the President’s Office. The turning point came when Mossad chief David Barnea spoke to his Turkish counterpart and gave his word that contrary to the Turkish prosecution’s accusation, the Oaknins are not Israeli spies, and have nothing to do with Israeli intelligence.

Israeli Chargé d’Affaires in Turkey, Irit Lillian, was in contact with Erdogan’s senior adviser Ibrahim Kalin, who ultimately informed her on Wednesday afternoon that the Oaknins would be freed.

The military censor blocked publication of the details and the Oaknins’ relatives in Israel kept the matter a secret, even when government officials who did not know the latest news visited them.

Israel did not have to give anything to Ankara in return for releasing the couple, a diplomatic source said, because Erdogan and his advisers understood that the arrest was a Kafkaesque mistake and there was no reason to keep them in Turkey.

The source speculated that the incident reconnected Israeli and Turkish officials, and that could help repair the poor relations between the countries.

The Oaknins, Modi’in residents and Egged bus drivers, flew home on a special flight with Foreign Ministry Consular Department Head Rina Djerassi-Dvir and Human Resources Department head Chaim Levi, who went to Turkey several days ago to negotiate their release.

The Oaknins photographed Erdogan’s palace last week while in the Camlica Tower, the tallest tower in Europe. A waitress heard them talking about it and reported them to police, which arrested them and a Turkish friend who accompanied them on their visit.

Turkish police originally recommended deporting the Oaknins, but the prosecution sought to charge them with espionage. A court extended their remand for at least 20 days last Friday, as the prosecution prepared its case for a trial.

Bennett and Lapid spoke with Shiraz Ben-Harush and Natali’s brother Eran Peri as they waited for their arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport.

The prime minister and foreign minister said they “respect the Oaknin family for their strength during this complicated time,” and thanked President Isaac Herzog for his help.

Turkish police officers wearing face masks, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, in the background, patrol at touristic Sultanahmet Square following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 5, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)Turkish police officers wearing face masks, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, in the background, patrol at touristic Sultanahmet Square following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 5, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

“You see? I told you that we are doing everything, and indeed we did everything,” Bennett said. “You were a wonderful partner. The family’s restraint was very critical during these days. Give little Ofek a hug for me. Mom and Dad are on their way home.”

Lapid – who canceled a trip to meet his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest to stay involved in the Oaknins’ case – told Shiraz and Eran that they and their family were “amazing.”

“We were with you all week,” Lapid said. “We promised that we would do everything to bring them back to you, and now they are on their way home. Give them a big hug for us.”

Herzog tweeted a welcome to the Oaknins, and also said he sends hugs to them and their family. He thanked Erdogan and the Turkish government for their cooperation.

Peri expressed his appreciation for the work the Foreign Ministry did to bring back his sister and brother-in-law, and pushed back against criticism on social media of his sister’s past Facebook posts supporting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and harshly criticizing Bennett.

“It was all the Foreign Ministry... They worked like crazy,” he told KAN Bet Radio. “We’re a right-wing family... It doesn’t matter if we’re Left or Right. What was important was to bring these parents back to their children and the country that they love.”

Israel’s consul in Istanbul, Ronen Levi, visited Natali, and Consul-General Udi Eitam visited Mordy on Tuesday; their Israeli attorney, Nir Yaslovitzh met with them as well. The diplomats also met with prison authorities to ensure that the couple was being held in suitable living conditions, and gave them clothing and supplies.

On Tuesday, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu had accused the couple of “military and political espionage,” raising concerns that the issue would be a drawn-out affair.

The Oaknins were featured prominently in a 2018 ad campaign for Egged to encourage people to apply for jobs with the bus company, which Yaslovitzh planned to use as part of their defense, arguing that spies would not have their faces appearing in ads online and on buses.

Meanwhile, Shiraz Ben-Harush opened a crowdfunding page to pay her parents’ legal fees, which had been covered by the Egged workers’ union.

The case comes just weeks after the Turkish news agency Sabah claimed that a Mossad network of 15 Arabs had been caught by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Israeli sources have denied the claims.

Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.