PM calls family as efforts continue to free Israelis jailed in Turkey

Efforts to bring the Oaknins back to Israel continue “around the clock, led by the Foreign Ministry… with an aim to bring the problem to its resolution as soon as possible.”

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a cabinet meeting on November 14, 2021 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/POOL)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a cabinet meeting on November 14, 2021
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/POOL)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called relatives of Mordi and Natali Oknin, Israelis in jail in Istanbul for photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s home.

Bennett sought to encourage and show support for the family at this difficult time, his spokesman said on Wednesday, and thanked them for behaving responsibly in light of the complicated situation.

Meanwhile, one of the couple’s daughters was allowed to speak to her mother, telling her “We’re being strong for you.”

“I’m strong. If you’re strong, I’m strong,” she told her family, adding that she hadn’t been beaten in jail. “They didn’t harm me. It’s hard for me, but I’m getting along.”

Efforts to bring the Oknins back to Israel continue “around the clock, led by the Foreign Ministry... with an aim to bring the problem to its resolution as soon as possible,” the prime minister’s spokesman stated.

 Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey October 16, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER) Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey October 16, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)

At the same time, a diplomatic source said Israel is trying to avoid amplifying the Oknins’ case too much in public, because they’ve found that Turkey has been tougher in talks when they do so.

Remarks by Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on Tuesday made the matter seem like it will be a drawn-out affair, rather than something resolved quickly behind the scenes as Jerusalem would prefer.

“The couple photographed Erdogan’s home; they focused on the house and marked it,” Soylu said in a press conference. “The prosecutor’s office estimates that they committed a crime of military and political espionage, but the court will make the decision in the future.”

The Oknins, Egged bus drivers who live in Modi’in, took the photo of Erdogan’s palace while in the Camlica Tower, the tallest tower in Europe, which opened earlier this year. A waitress heard them talking about it and reported them to the police, who arrested them and a Turkish friend who accompanied them on their visit.

The couple appealed their arrest on Tuesday night, and a decision on the matter is expected to come within a week to 10 days. They could remain in jail, be sent to house arrest in Turkey or deported.

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

Israeli Consul in Istanbul Ronen Levi visited Natali, and Consul-General Udi Eitam visited Mordi on Tuesday. The diplomats also met with prison authorities in order to ensure that the couple was being held under suitable living conditions. They gave the couple clothing and supplies.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and the consulate team in Istanbul updated the Oknins’ family in Israel.

Turkish media claimed that the couple shared the photo they took in a WhatsApp group and wrote down technical information about the tower.