An Israeli couple held in Turkey for suspected espionage after photographing the president’s palace was set free early on Thursday morning and were on their way home, Israeli officials said.
“After joint efforts with Turkey, Mordy and Natali Oknin were released from prison and are on their way home to Israel,” said a joint statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
“We thank the President of Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” the statement said, adding that Israeli President Isaac Herzog had also significantly contributed to efforts to end the saga.
The statement also thanked the couple’s family “for their strength during this complicated time and for their cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
The Foreign Ministry sent a jet, along with two senior consular officials, to bring them back and they were expected to arrive in Israel at 6 a.m.
The couple were arrested in Istanbul last week after they photographed Turkish President Recep Tayyip 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.
Initial hopes that the misunderstanding would quickly be cleared up was dashed last week when a judge ordered them held for an additional 20 days on suspicion of espionage.
The couple were being held separately and granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.
Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, are spies.
On Wednesday Natali Oknin spoke with her family on Wednesday for the first time since she was arrested last week.
She made the phone call from prison in Istanbul to her family in the central city of Modiin. She updated them on her conditions during her imprisonment for the first time, after they had previously only been relayed via her lawyer.
“Be calm and stay strong,” her children told her in a recording of the call released to Israeli media.
“I’m strong. If you’re strong, then I can stay strong,” she replied.
She said she was “being treated well. There’s always a woman near me. If I need to use the bathroom she escorts me.”
“No one has touched me. I bought some things in the commissary. It’s tough, but I’m getting by,” she said, adding that she had not been outside but had a window that looked outdoors.
She had received clothes, underwear, shampoo, conditioner, fresh bread and chocolate spread, she said. One of her daughters sang her the song “Only for Mom” by Eti Bitton at her request.
In an emotional exchange, she said she had had frightful dreams and thoughts about her family members while she was in prison.
“Don’t be scared, Mom. Everyone’s alive and okay and waiting for you. We’re never alone, the whole family is here, everyone is helping, taking care of money and finances, everything,” they said. “We’re strong, we’re strong for you, I promise.”
“Don’t lose hope, this will be over soon,” they said. “We’re doing everything to get you out. Everyone is staying strong.”
“I’m strong. I’m, drinking, I’m eating,” said Natali.
Oknin’s children told her about their conversations with Bennett and Lapid. She praised her children for their efforts to get her released, telling them, “You’re so smart, I’m proud of you.”
Bennett spoke with the couple’s relatives on Wednesday, and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that it was “clear to all” that there was no reason for Turkish authorities to arrest the couple.
In addition to its own diplomatic efforts, Israel had enlisted the help of a third country in its attempts to free the couple, the Haaretz newspaper reported. The third country was working to pressure Turkey’s leaders to free the Oknins.
In the first public comment by a top Turkish official on the affair, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed on Tuesday that the Oknins had “focused” on Erdogan’s residence while photographing it and “marked it.”
He told reporters that prosecutors believe the Israelis committed “what can be called diplomatic and military espionage,” but that “the court will decide.”
Turkish media on Wednesday included widespread coverage of the case. The local media had previously only mentioned the arrests, in what was seen by Israel as a positive sign, because it would lessen public pressure on Turkish officials to hold the couple or make demands.
The delicate diplomacy was further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.