Testimony of Henry Siegman Before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

March 11, 1998

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.


The Issue of Security

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Palestinian Responsibility

Hollow Diplomacy

A New Framework for the Peace Process

The Reciprocity Debate

Imposing U.S. Views on Israel

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Respecting Israel's Democracy

Is a Public U.S. Position Counterproductive?

Next Steps


Despite a general impression that not much has changed in Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors in the 50 years since the founding of the Jewish state (or, for that matter, since the modern Arab-Zionist encounter began 100 years ago), there have in fact been several major changes of historic dimensions.

President Sadat's extraordinary trip to Jerusalem in 1977 and the Camp David accords that followed constituted one such watershed. It put an end to decades of unrelenting Arab hostility to and rejection of Israel that were best captured by the three noes of Khartoum: no recognition, no negotiations, no compromise. The second change, even more profound in its regional consequences, was the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, which was made possible by the Madrid conference of 1991. It held the promise not only of a grand historic compromise between Israel and the Palestinians, a conflict that is at the heart of the larger Israel-Arab encounter, but of eventual normalization with the entire region. Not only did the Oslo agreement lead quickly to a formal peace between Israel and Jordan, but a number of Arab countries, from the Maghreb to the Gulf, entered into unprecedented commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel that were expected to lead, slowly but surely, to an undreamt-of reconciliation between the Jewish state and its surrounding Arab neighbors.

Unfortunately, there was yet to be one more change, this one bringing about a return to the past, an undoing of the grand hopes and expectations triggered by Oslo that were considered "irreversible." This change coincided with a new Israeli approach to the peace process and to the implementation of the Oslo accords following the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in May of 1996. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud-led government introduced a political sensibility that contrasted sharply with that of his Labor predecessors.

The Issue of Security

It would be simplistic— and wrong— to say that what distinguishes Prime Minister Netanyahu's policies is their greater emphasis on security. The idea that Yitzhak Rabin was soft on security is false, and defamatory of the man and his legacy. Few individuals in the history of the state of Israel were more uncompromising on the issue of Israel's security than was Yitzhak Rabin.

Prime Minister Rabin understood that, on balance, an embittered Palestinian population that is denied its most basic aspirations represents a far more serious threat to the Jewish state than yielding territory to enable Palestinians to establish their own homeland. He understood that offering the weaker side that kind of satisfaction and dignity is not an admission of weakness, or an act of altruism, or even a reward for good behavior. Rather, he saw it as an essential element in the structure of Israel's security.

Most important, Prime Minister Rabin understood that the most serious threat to Israel's security is posed by weapons of mass destruction that are or will come into the possession of countries like Iraq and Iran. Far more critical to Israel's long-range security than additional kilometers of territory is a peaceful relationship with its immediate neighbors, particularly with the Palestinians and Syria. That point was underlined in the current crisis with Iraq, one that would have been (and surely will again be, if the crisis recurs) far less threatening to Israel if it had established peaceful relations with its immediate neighbors.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government introduced a different— and in the view of many, a more limited and dangerous— definition of security than the one held by Rabin, equating it narrowly with territory. The narrowness of this definition is determined for this right-wing government not only by objective security concerns, but also by a nationalistic and religious ideology that absolutizes and sacralizes land, and that is less than respectful of the national claims and of the aspirations of Palestinians. It also does not attach the same weight that the previous government did to the consequences of such a policy for the democratic character of the evolving political culture and institutions of the Jewish state.

In my view, an understanding of Israel's security that considers any territorial gain by the Palestinians a net loss for Israel cannot coexist with the Oslo accords, or with any peace process that can be acceptable to both parties. It was therefore predictable that Mr. Netanyahu would seek to stop the peace process, but in ways that shift the blame to the Palestinians. This he has done.

Prime Minister Netanyahu understands— perhaps better than most Israelis— that U.S. friendship and support are critical elements in Israel's long-range security. At the end of the day, they weigh more heavily, even for Netanyahu, than territory. That is why it is so important to him that the U.S. public and Congress believe that what he calls the absence of Palestinian reciprocity, not his own policies, is responsible for Oslo's collapse.

Prime Minister Netanyahu promised that his policies would "lower Palestinian expectations." In this, he has succeeded brilliantly. Indeed, Palestinians no longer believe that the peace process can lead to a viable Palestinian state, a goal that constitutes their most fundamental aspiration, even if they were to abide by the new government's demand for strict reciprocity. This change is not the consequence of "a loss of trust," as is commonly observed, but of Prime Minister Netanyahu's and his cabinet's repeated declarations that they will never permit a viable Palestinian state to emerge. They hold out at best the possibility of a series of isolated bantustans surrounded by a permanent Israeli military presence, with Israel annexing most of the West Bank.

Palestinian Responsibility

There are those who maintain that Yaser Arafat is at least as responsible as Prime Minister Netanyahu for destroying the promise of Oslo, if it is not entirely his fault. It is true that Arafat and other Palestinians have done immeasurable damage to their own cause by failing to sustain the war against terrorism in the territories they control, by resorting to rhetoric that puts off even Israelis who fully support the peace process and oppose the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and by corrupt and authoritarian practices that have marred his leadership.

These shortcomings did not emerge after Netanyahu came to power. They were clearly in evidence under the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres as well. Indeed, the worst of the suicide bombings occurred under Labor governments clearly committed to the Oslo process.

But this is the point that seems to escape the defenders of Netanyahu's policies. It is precisely because the Labor-led governments were clearly committed to Oslo, convinced that it serves first and foremost Israel's own interests, that they never jumped on Palestinian violations as a pretext to escape from Oslo, to question its efficacy, or to deny the possibility that it may lead to Palestinian independence. Instead, they sought to correct Palestinian behavior so that the process could move forward. And they did so in a reasonable way, without resorting to ridiculous conditions that, far from encouraging Palestinian compliance, are designed to do the opposite. They understood this is the inescapable responsibility of the stronger of the two parties if it truly wants the peace process to succeed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has not taken a single initiative, beyond empty P.R. exercises, to save the Oslo process and to move it forward. Instead, he has invested his best and most imaginative efforts in avoiding Israel's obligations under Oslo, especially those that require turning over territory to Palestinian control. To this day, the areas in which Palestinians have been given responsibility for security are less than 3 percent of the West Bank. Israel has retained security control in over 97 percent of these territories.

Hollow Diplomacy

Defenders of Prime Minister Netanyahu point to the Hebron agreement in January of 1997 as evidence of his commitment to the peace process. Leaving aside the painful fact that nothing has happened since then, at the time the Hebron agreement was signed the question was whether it represented the first step in a new peace process that would bear Netanyahu's stamp, or whether it was a final chapter intended to shut down Oslo. Given Mr. Netanyahu's record in the year following the Hebron agreement, the answer to that question seems obvious.

As we speak, Prime Minister Netanyahu is off on one of his tours of European capitals to persuade its leaders of his desire to save the peace process, if only Arafat would cooperate. It is a phony exercise in diplomacy that is characteristic of how he has managed the peace process from the beginning. In its lead editorial, Ha'aretz dismisses the tour as another of Prime Minister Netanyahu's public relations stunts, entirely devoid of substance. Its purpose, Ha'aretz believes, is to create the impression of diplomatic activity without however risking any real results. If Netanyahu had the slightest intention of moving the peace process forward, there would be no need for international mediation, the paper writes. The United States played no role whatever in the negotiations that produced the Oslo accords.

The newspaper concludes that the situation today chillingly reminds Israelis of the period preceding the 1973 war, "a disaster brought on by a diplomatic freeze, boastful self-confidence, contempt for the Arab adversary and a nation which followed its leaders into destructive apathy. It takes no great imagination to see how today's march of folly is returning Israel to the bloodshed of previous national blindness."

Four and a half years after the Oslo accords were signed on the White House lawn and Israel's government reached out to the Palestinians and to Yaser Arafat as partners in the peace process, this Israeli government is back to treating Palestinians as a conquered nation and Arafat as a closet terrorist.

A New Framework for the Peace Process

In these circumstances, the incrementalism intended as confidence-building measures that are at the heart of the Oslo process have become irrelevant, if not counterproductive. As noted in a report by an independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations on "U.S. Middle East Policy and the Peace Process" that was issued in June of 1997, the only way to revive the peace process— and, for that matter, to restore meaning to the concept of reciprocity— is to obtain Israel's agreement that if Palestinians act in good faith, engage in a sustained war on terrorism, and reinstate security collaboration with Israel, the goal of a viable Palestinian state is achievable.

The task force's major recommendation was that the United States become far more actively involved in Middle East peace-making and put forward its own ideas for a framework for the final-status negotiations. For a majority of the task force, the most critical features of such a framework are: an agreement that the goal of the peace process and the final-status negotiations is a viable Palestinian state on contiguous territory in Gaza and in most of the West Bank; and an agreement that the territory on which most Israeli settlers now live will be incorporated into Israel, thus avoiding the trauma of a major uprooting of the homes and lives of a large number of Israelis. These two principles are not incompatible, for 80 percent of Israel's settlers live on territory that comprises not more than 10 percent of the West Bank, mostly along the previous Green Line that separated Israel and the West Bank before 1967.

Palestinians understand that such a state would have to be demilitarized so as not to pose a security threat to Israel. They must also understand that Israel will not return to the pre-1967 borders. On the other hand, Israel's government must understand that if this peace process is to go forward, it cannot engage in unilateral actions that preempt discussions of issues which the parties have agreed are to be part of final-status negotiations, particularly if they diminish significantly, or preclude entirely, the possibility of eventual Palestinian statehood. While continued expropriation of land and settlement activity in the territories may not violate the letter of existing agreements, they certainly contradict their essential spirit and purpose. For the Declaration of Principles clearly states that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent-status negotiations." It takes an extraordinary exegesis to construe these words to mean their exact opposite.

The task force proposed a number of principles that would define a framework for the final-status negotiations, as well as for the more limited incremental steps leading to those negotiations. They are not intended to provide solutions to the many complex final-status issues that only the parties themselves can negotiate. Rather, they recognize that a peace process that does not lead to Palestinian statehood is a non-starter. It asserts what should be obvious: If Palestinians are told that even faithful adherence to the provisions of the Oslo accords will not result in a viable Palestinian state, but will at best yield a series of isolated bantustans that remain effectively under permanent Israeli military control, there is no reason for Palestinians to remain in such a process. For the United States to be seen as seeking Palestinian acquiescence to such an outcome, or as indifferent to its consequences, is to damage its credibility and its wider regional interests.

An American insistence that final-status talks can succeed only within a framework that promises Palestinian statehood would not negate the Oslo accords and the obligations the parties assumed under its terms, including the Palestinian obligation to fight terrorism and Israel's commitment to further redeployments in the West Bank. It would not even negate the incrementalism of the Oslo accords. Rather, it would recognize that incremental progress can serve to build confidence only if these partial measures are seen as gradual steps leading to the realization of minimal Palestinian and Israeli aspirations. In the words of the task force report, "Only the promise that [the aspirations of both parties] are achievable can revitalize the peace process and sustain it to a successful conclusion."

Only when Palestinian statehood is seen as a credible goal of the peace process, and Palestinian efforts to prevent terrorism and violence in the areas they control are consistent— and in the real world, the latter will not happen without the former— will the necessary level of confidence for the parties to re-engage in a political process be restored.

The Reciprocity Debate

In the present circumstances, Palestinians have no reason to believe that the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence on reciprocity is anything other than the avoidance of further Israeli redeployment in the West Bank. In fact, Israeli violations of its obligations under the Oslo accords are hardly less extensive or less serious than Palestinian violations. Despite commitments undertaken in Oslo I and II, and renewed by Mr. Netanyahu as part of the Hebron agreement in January of 1997, Israel has still not allowed the establishment of safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, the opening of an airport and seaport in Gaza, or even freed all of Palestinian prisoners it had promised to release.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Netanyahu's cabinet decided that "an irrevocable" condition for any further redeployment in the West Bank is Palestinian observance of no less than 50 conditions. These measures include the prevention of hostile sermons in mosques (although there is no requirement for the prevention of hostile sermons in synagogues) and the proper treatment of sewage to prevent water pollution.

The notion that a failure to observe these conditions constitutes a violation of reciprocity that frees Israel of its obligation for further redeployment and brings the entire peace process to an end, but that massive Israeli construction of housing in East Jerusalem, unlimited enlargement of settlements in the territories, and construction of major new highways and infrastructure that link these settlements do not constitute an Israeli violation of reciprocity, surely cannot be taken seriously.

In addition to the 50 conditions for Palestinian reciprocity, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited his cabinet to draw a "vital interests" map indicating what parts of the West Bank Israel must retain for its own security, which turned out to be between 60 and 65 percent of the West Bank. A prominent Israeli columnist, Joel Marcus, commenting in Ha'aretz, made the following observations about the cabinet's actions: "The list of conditions that Palestinians must now meet before any Israeli redeployment can only be seen as a deliberate insult. And the map of 'vital interests' the cabinet approved looks like a comedy routine. With an eastern security zone and a western security zone, with a security zone around Jerusalem and a security zone around all the settlements, with the protection of the holy places and with control of both water resources and expanded highways crisscrossing the territories, where will the Palestinian autonomous state be located? On the roof of Yaser Arafat's villa in Gaza?"

However Prime Minister Netanyahu defends these actions to the international community, their purpose is clearly understood by Israelis themselves, and most certainly by the Palestinians. Uri Elitzur, a right-wing Israeli columnist, stated openly in Yediot Ahronot (December 19, 1997) that "the reciprocity demand is admittedly only a pretext. . . . The truth is we are fighting for the extradition of terrorists in the hope that Arafat will never hand them over, and we will never have to take another withdrawal step."

The consequences of these actions should be clear. Zeev Schiff, Israel's most respected commentator on security affairs, warned "that the prospect of another intifada depends, first and foremost, on whether the weaker side feels that the stronger one is closing off all reasonable options. That is what Israel is doing today, slowly but surely. Sowing the wind, Israel should not be surprised if it reaps the whirlwind."

The words of Zeev Schiff also put into proper perspective Prime Minister Netanyahu's favorite criticism of the Palestinians. He has repeatedly accused them of threatening violence whenever they have a disagreement with Israel, unlike Israel, which never threatens violence when it has disagreements with the Palestinians. It is a disingenuous and cynical comment not only because, as Schiff observes, if you close off all options to the weaker side the only recourse that is left to them is violence. It is a disingenuous and cynical remark because Netanyahu knows very well that when Israel has a disagreement with the Palestinians, it gets its way only because of its military and police forces in the territories, not because of a policy of non-violence.

Imposing U.S. Views on Israel

A number of arguments have been advanced in opposition to the Council's task force recommendation that the United States go beyond its past role as facilitator between the parties and actively seek to shape the direction of the peace process by presenting its own ideas for a framework for final-status negotiations. The principle arguments against this advice are the following:

1) The United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.

2) Israel is not only a friend and ally, but a democracy, and the United States has no business imposing its views on it. By voting for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's citizens expressed their support for his view of the conditions for peace with the Palestinians and rejected Labor's views. The United States has no business undoing such a democratic mandate, especially if its commitment to Israel is based in large part on shared democratic values.

3) If the United States were to put its own ideas on the table and advocate Palestinian statehood, Prime Minister Netanyahu would not only resist our interference but would use it as a reason to formally abrogate Oslo.

In my view, these arguments are devoid of merit.

The United States has good reason to want a fair and lasting resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict even if a particular Israeli government is more interested in retaining territory than achieving peace. This is so not because the United States wants peace more than the parties do, nor because it knows better than Israelis what is good for them, but because the United States has major national interests of its own at stake. As indicated in the task force report, these interests include not only the security and well-being of the state of Israel, about which it can convincingly be argued that their definition by Israel's government takes precedence over the American view, but also uninterrupted access to critical energy resources, the security and stability of friendly Arab states, the prevention of terrorism, and limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Surely recent events in Iraq have underscored that point.

The issue of "imposing" American views on Israel has been exploited, in my view, in a demagogic fashion. We have long insisted— most recently in the words of our secretary of state— that as the world's only super power, we have obligations we cannot avoid. I do not know if we stand taller and see further than other countries, but we certainly do have unique and inescapable responsibilities. Neither the administration nor members of this honorable Senate and of the House of Representatives have been hesitant in the past about trying to change the policies of our most friendly democratic allies in Western Europe when we thought their policies were wrong and damage our interests. Surely the Iran-Libyan Sanctions Act and the Helms-Burton legislation are not testimonials to such congressional reluctance.

Having said that, let me be clear that neither the task force of the Council on Foreign Relations nor I personally argue for "imposing" U.S. views on Israel. We do argue for an American effort to influence its policies, without resorting to sanctions or other forms of punishment, and at the very least, for a clear statement of American views. If, by stating American views publicly, we create pressure on this Israeli government to reconsider its policies and to attach greater weight to American views in the balance of their calculations, that is precisely what the United States, as a great power and as Israel's best and most constant friend and ally, should be doing. We have been reckless in not doing so until now.

Respecting Israel's Democracy

It is not true that critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu have failed to come to terms with the fact that Labor has been voted out and Likud voted in in Israel's last election, an accusation often made by the head of a Washington-based policy organization. Nor is the issue one of interfering with Israel's democratic process. To begin with, international agreements made by a government, most especially a democratic government, remain binding on its successors. More to the point, one cannot invoke democratic values to justify clearly undemocratic behavior. Israeli citizens should be able to decide how to live their own lives without outside interference. However, that same democratic principle argues that Israel cannot decide the fate of several million Palestinians who are excluded from Israel's elections. Whatever justification can be marshaled in support of a decision by Israel to disenfranchise permanently several million Palestinians by denying them self-determination, surely democracy is not one of them.

In support of his position, Prime Minister Netanyahu has often argued that Israel is not the only democratic country that does not allow an ethnic minority to form its own separate state. That is true enough, provided these minorities are granted the same rights that all other citizens of those countries enjoy. But if they are denied those rights, as Palestinians in the territories are, and if at the same time they are denied self-determination, that is a mockery of democracy.

It will be argued that sovereign countries have a right to define their own security needs, even if they violate democratic principles. That, of course, is a different argument. Israel's security interests are real, and it has not only a right but an obligation to its citizens to demand reasonable Palestinian accommodation to those interests. But no country can define its security interests so broadly as to preclude not only the security interests of its neighbors but their very national existence. "We need security, ergo you may not live," is not a viable axiom of international relations. And far from providing added security, it is an axiom that provokes revanchism and violence as far as the eye can see.

Is A Public U.S. Position Counterproductive?

Finally, and most directly related to U.S. policymaking in this region, is the question of what would be the consequences for the direction of Israeli policy of an explicit U.S. assertion of a framework for final-stage negotiations. As indicated, there are those who believe it would simply end the peace process. But the peace process has ended, so that danger is hardly a reason to avoid U.S. initiatives that may revive it, however uncertain their prospect.

As noted earlier, however narrowly Netanyahu equates Israel's security with the retention of territory, his experience in the United States has sensitized him to the importance of American friendship and support for Israel. He understands that this is not only a matter of sentiment but a hard security concept. In a crunch, the administration's friendship is far more significant than the $3 billion the U.S. Congress allocates to Israel for economic and military aid. As Israel learned in the Yom Kippur war, when push comes to shove, it is the executive branch of the U.S. government that may have to take quick and decisive— and risky— actions that have existential consequences for Israel. It is therefore entirely likely that for all of his confrontational tactics, such as meeting with President Clinton's political opponents just before he confers with his host at the White House, even Mr. Netanyahu will think twice before rejecting a clear presidential initiative.

Even if it were predictable that open U.S. support for Palestinian statehood would be used by Netanyahu and his government as a welcome pretext to formally abandon Oslo (as they have already abandoned it de facto), there is little downside to such an initiative. In the present circumstances of deadlock, the most serious and immediate danger is that Palestinians, despairing of any further progress, will reject a leadership that has been unable to deliver on minimal economic and political expectations. Even Arafat's own Fatah supporters have been radicalized by the failure of the peace process and are calling for a renewed intifada. The consequences of such renewed violence for the region as a whole and for U.S. interests in that part of the world are immeasurable.

U.S. support for Palestinian statehood, even if rejected by Netanyahu, would give Arafat a powerful argument against Palestinian abandonment of the Oslo process. For U.S. support for viable Palestinian statehood will inevitably define the contours of final-status negotiations, whenever they occur. It constitutes a marker that no Israeli government will be able to erase.

U.S. peace policy has in fact moved in new directions since the task force issued its recommendations. After an initial period of hesitation, Secretary of State Albright stated in an important policy address in August of 1997 that the incrementalism of Oslo no longer works and that the parties must now focus instead on the goals of the process. More recently, in a dramatic departure from his previous role, the president decided to become personally engaged in the negotiations and has put his own proposals to the parties. In a statement to Arafat during their last meeting in Washington, repeated in his message to the Muslim world to mark the end of Ramadan, President Clinton declared American support for Palestinian aspirations to "live as a free people." That still falls short of endorsing Palestinian statehood, but it moves U.S. policy considerably beyond where it has been. The president should be commended for this.

It goes without saying that it is the sovereign right of any Israeli government to pursue policies that even its best friends believe are ill-conceived. It is not Israel's sovereign right to demand that its friends damage their own interests by allowing the impression that they endorse Israeli policies when they do not. The United States has both the right and obligation to advocate a course of action it believes both fair to all of the parties and serving U.S. interests in the region.

Reports persist, despite formal denials by the administration, that the United States intends to come forward with its own proposals for the next steps to move the peace process forward. It is an open secret that what the United States has in mind is an Israeli redeployment in the West Bank and Gaza of about 13 percent, implemented in stages over a period of 12 weeks, and reciprocated by Palestinian measures in the security area.

I believe that going public with this particular proposal is unwise:

To begin with, it is faulty in its execution. If the idea of going public with this proposal has merit, the administration should have done so long ago, rather than endlessly threatening to do so. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been given ample opportunity to mobilize congressional and other opposition to such a move, and he has fully exploited that opportunity.

The administration correctly insists on the importance of meaningful Israeli redeployment. But it is the wrong issue to go public with. Besides the fact that it leaves the United States vulnerable to the charge that we seek to micromanage the details of the negotiations— 13.1 percent instead of 9 percent— it is not the issue that will revive the peace process and restore the necessary trust between the parties.

If the administration is to spend its political capital, as it surely will by going public, it should do so on an issue that is absolutely fundamental to the peace process and that stands a chance of changing its essential dynamic.

As I have indicated, that issue is Palestinian statehood. Only by holding out the promise of Palestinian statehood as a goal of the peace process can the United States— and Israel for that matter— have the leverage to gain Palestinian compliance with its undertakings under the Oslo accords to wage a sustained war against terrorism. If their most important aspiration, viable statehood, is denied them, Palestinians have no reason to wage such a war. If Arafat were to wage such a war anyway, the inevitable result will be his overthrow and the triumph of Hamas. No one who is in touch with the realities on the ground in the West Bank and in Gaza is under the illusion that any other outcome is possible.

We are obliged to be skeptical of Arafat's promises of what he will do to assure Israel's security. We must insist that Arafat prove himself, not with words, but in actual performance. But we can do that only if we also say to Arafat that if he and the Palestinians are faithful to their commitments, they will achieve their essential goal of freedom and independence.

Unfortunately, the message this Israeli government has given Arafat is that Palestinian statehood is unachievable no matter what he does. This is not a formula for peace, much less for a Palestinian war on terrorism. It is not a formula that should receive American support. Indeed, given U.S. interests in the region, interests that are now seriously in danger, it is important that we make it clear that we find such a formula unacceptable.

I support the direction in which U.S. Middle Eastern policy now seems to be moving. I regret that this direction was not taken sooner and that it has not gone further. My hope is that it is not too late to prevent incalculable damage to American interests in the region and to the peace process, and that the Congress will give the president the support that his efforts need and deserve.

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