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Neighbors. Not a love story

With Israeli-Palestinian efforts deadlocked, are there lessons to be learned from a rare glimpse inside the secret talks between Israel and Jordan between 1967 and 1973?

Rabin and King Hussein shaking hands
Photo by: Associated Press
Secret peace negotiations between Jordan and Israel began in 1963 and continued until the two countries signed a unilateral treaty in 1994.

The talks, which increased in intensity after the Six Day War, were held on two tracks: at the highest level between Israeli ministers and King Hussein of Jordan.

Between March 1972 and September 1973 prime minister Golda Meir and Hussein met six times, including their final meeting only weeks before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

A close examination of the historical record shows that the two sides moved on parallel lines that could never meet. The king genuinely hoped to reach an agreement with Israel based on the principles of the Arab summit and his talks with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israel, on the other hand, was reluctant to commit itself to enter into peace negotiations with Jordan, avoiding serious discussion on the principles of peace. Instead it presented the Allon Plan for discussion with the king.

Ultimately, the gap in the positions on the talks’ goals, in the components of the solution to the conflict and the peace settlement was unbridgeable. And yet, despite this impasse, both parties felt it was in their common interest to pursue the talks, which became a goal in itself.

Dr. Ya’acov Herzog, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Levi Eshkol, kept notes of the talks in a special file entitled the “Charles File” (King Hussein’s code name). Herzog coordinated the meetings between Hussein and Israeli leaders from their beginning until October 1970, and took an active part in all of them. On the Israeli side, in addition to Herzog, were deputy prime minister and minister of labor Yigal Allon, and foreign minister Abba Eban.

On the Jordanian side, besides King Hussein, was his personal secretary, Zayd al-Rifa’i who, like Herzog, played an active role in coordinating the meetings and participating in the discussions.

The post-Six Day War talks were held on two tracks: the first, between Herzog and Rifa’i and the king; the second, between Allon and Eban and the king, with Herzog and Rifa’i in attendance. Two meetings between the Israeli and Jordanian chiefs of staff were also held, in which security matters were discussed. Eshkol avoided meeting Hussein, although Meir, his successor, participated in the talks.

A major result of the Six Day War was the linkage between a solution to the Israeli–Jordanian conflict, that is an arrangement regarding the future of the West Bank, and a solution to the Palestinian national problem.

However, the parties’ freedom to maneuver in the talks (trilateral talks, if we add the traditional leadership on the West Bank) was limited. In Israel’s case, the constraints stemmed from domestic reasons, such as preserving the government’s national unity coalition with the Right, headed by Menachem Begin; in Jordan’s case, the limited maneuvering space came from internal problems (a Palestinian majority in the country) and Jordan’s inter-Arab commitments and Arab pressures.

THE TRADITIONAL West Bank leadership played a key role in the background of the talks. These notables had been senior office holders during Jordanian rule, and after the Six Day War they represented the population in an unofficial capacity in dealings with the Israeli administration. Their freedom to maneuver was very restricted since they were dependent on the general Arab position and the Jordanian position in particular.

Already in December 1967 the entire West Bank Palestinian leadership was of one opinion regarding the rules of the game in its relations with the Israeli administration.

The gist of it was “unity between the two banks,” and the “Palestinian problem is an all-Arab problem.” Neither the Palestinian people alone nor any Arab state alone had the right to deal with it separately; in other words, the pact was a commitment to the Arab position that had been approved in the August 19-September 1, 1967, Khartoum Summit Conference. The local leadership was forbidden to enter negotiations with Israel. Any suspicious exhortations for the establishment of a Palestinian state that claimed to terminate the problem were categorically rejected.

The Israelis were hampered by their own problems. When it came to determining the future of the West Bank, all of the political elements in the country converged: ideology, historical legacy and especially the complex security problem. The main obstacle to a clearly defined policy for a settlement with Jordan, at the heart of which was the territorial issue, was the national unity government that blocked any decision related to the future of the West Bank.

Eshkol intentionally avoided any attempt to determine a policy that would guide Israeli leaders in the talks. Thus, Israel’s position was characterized by lack of a welldefined policy, even though at nearly every meeting Hussein asked to see an official, clearly written policy paper. His requests went unanswered despite Eban’s promises to produce such a paper. Israeli leaders – including Allon, Eban, defense minister Moshe Dayan and occasionally minister without portfolio Yisrael Galili – all had different opinions regarding the guidelines for the talks.

Israel’s political leadership made no realistic assessment of the Jordanian and Arab political situation and Hussein’s freedom to maneuver, which could have served as a starting point for the talks. In effect, it had no official plan of action for reaching a settlement with Jordan. It regarded the talks as merely “clarifications” and “feelers,” whereas the Jordanians came to the talks with guidelines and a carefully drawn-up plan for a settlement.

SIMILAR TO THE DILEMMA that David Ben-Gurion faced after the 1948 war, Eshkol and his permanent four-man team had two choices: an agreement with the Palestinian leadership that included the establishment of a Palestinian administration and autonomy on the West Bank linked “in some way” to Israel, or a settlement with Jordan that guaranteed the return of the West Bank, or most of it to the king. It was natural that Israel’s first tendency was to work for an arrangement with the local Palestinian leaders – what was later termed the “Palestinian option.”

Israel wavered for a long time between the two options and sometimes, parallel with the renewal of secret talks with Jordan, it pursued both tracks even after it decided in favor of the Jordanian option. This vacillation lasted until mid-1968 when it chose the Jordanian option, thus bypassing or ignoring the Palestinians.

Israeli political leaders did not work out a clear formula for a Palestinian solution to the West Bank. Differences of opinion on this issue were rife. Each of the four decision- makers (Eshkol, Allon, Eban and Dayan) acted separately, but with the knowledge and agreement of the prime minister. An example of Eshkol’s dilemma, or preference, to avoid a decision, was the number of forums that he set up for clarifying the options facing the government. His most important step to remedy this situation was to appoint Moshe Sasson, a Foreign Ministry official, on November 12, 1967, as “the prime minister’s representative for political contacts in Jerusalem and the territories.”

Sasson immediately engaged the “traditional” West Bank leadership in approximately 60 discussions that lasted until January 1968. Beginning in February, Eshkol held a series of talks with Palestinian leaders that lasted until September.

It is no surprise that the Israeli policy-makers gradually realized that the chances of making progress on the Palestinian track were nil. Their proposals were too far removed from the political reality on the West Bank and the Khartoum resolutions, which served as the protocol for the traditional leadership. The postwar optimism soon gave way to disappointment and an awareness of the Palestinian leadership’s limited ability to act independently.

As the hopes for a settlement with the Palestinians faded, the slide to the Jordanian option proceeded slowly, almost as a default. The renewal of the secret talks with Hussein in July 1967, and especially the first serious meeting on May 3, 1968, instilled hopes in Israel’s leaders for a territorial settlement.

By mid-1968 the Jordanian option received the green light. This signaled a resumption of the talks with the king, and induced the Israeli leaders to informally adopt the Allon Plan for Hussein’s perusal.

The plan’s importance may be attributed to the fact that it was the only document that Hussein received. Allon envisioned direct Israeli control of the Jordan Valley as a security guarantee, while Dayan downplayed the valley’s importance and advocated the establishment of IDF bases on the mountain ridge, which he regarded as the ideal solution to the security problem. The Allon Plan was drafted in two stages: the Palestinian stage and the Jordanian stage.

Allon finished the manuscript on July 13, 1967, and placed all nine sections on the cabinet’s desk on July 27.

Allon presented the plan to the cabinet on July 30. Emphasizing its security aspect, he argued that a settlement with Hussein would not be a good solution as the Hashemite regime was unstable. However, since Eshkol and the ministers opposed the plan, it never came to a vote. Allon’s plan was nevertheless out of touch with the Arab political situation and the position of the West Bank leaders.

IN EARLY 1968 Allon began formulating a new concept based on a Jordanian orientation.

Instead of Palestinian autonomy, he proposed that Jordan receive all of the West Bank, rather than having it annexed to Israel, so that the solution to the Palestinian problem would be Jordan’s responsibility.

Allon believed that the king would swallow the “bait,” that is agree to have the West Bank returned to him, thereby accepting the plan as the basis of a peace settlement. On May 29 Israel’s leaders decided to present the Allon Plan to Hussein, but not as an official government proposal. It was decided that Allon would accompany Eban to the meeting and present the plan to the king.

Herzog’s record of the talks reveals a number of the king’s objectives, notwithstanding the risk to his position in the domestic and Arab arena in the wake of the Arab 1967 military defeat: First, he genuinely hoped to reach a peace settlement with Israel based on the principles of the Arab summit and his talks with Nasser.

He sought an agreement on the future of the West Bank as quickly as possible even if the price was direct talks with Israel.

I agree with what Rifa’i said to Avi Shlaim in a private conversation: “Hussein was truly a man of peace who hated war. He was intelligent, shrewd and pragmatic enough to know that the Arab-Israeli conflict could not be settled by violence. Only through negotiations and agreement would it be possible for their two peoples to live together in peace... Hussein realized he was taking a big risk, but he was willing to chance it and to accept the judgment of his people, the Arab nation and history.”

Second, Hussein attributed great importance to direct, high-level contact, especially as a guarantee for maintaining the security and integrity of his kingdom – and especially in light of subversive attempts against the regime in 1958-59 and the 1960s. This was one reason for Jordan’s renewal of secret contact after the war, and its value was proven in September 1970. The king expressed his thanks to Israel in the third meeting (December 1964) and again after Black September (1970) for helping safeguard his regime.

In the course of the talks Hussein tried to fathom Israel’s intentions on all aspects of the conflict and convey to it the Arabs’ position in the hope that this would lead the talks toward a settlement with the Arab countries in general, and Egypt in particular. In continuing the talks, the king wanted to also prevent an escalation in Israel’s responses to border violations.

Information was exchanged on these matters, especially regarding Fedayeen operations and attempts to undermine the regime.

In addition to the king’s honesty in the bilateral talks, which inspired and also characterized his secretary Rifa’i, Hussein’s public statements mirrored what he said in secret meetings and diplomatic discussions in the US and Britain. He did not speak with two voices.

This proved his credibility, honesty and integrity.

None of this escaped the Israelis taking part in the meetings.

This was a unique encounter between two different worlds and cultures. On one side was the delegation of the victors, brimming with arrogance and self-righteousness, and bent on dictating the conditions for a settlement. This was especially true of Allon, who, on several occasions, reminded Hussein and Rifa’i that having lost the war, Jordan must accept the consequences – concessions to Israel. On the other side stood the loser, trying gallantly not to admit to defeat.

Self-respect, non-submission and obstinate refusal to make concessions were its guiding lights.

Israel’s leadership viewed the meeting with an Arab leader as a major political breakthrough, one that it had striven for ever since its founding. These meetings flattered them. In a report to the Alignment Party’s political committee on May 19, 1968, Eban summed up his meeting with Hussein: “We have reached the path of direct contact with an Arab country for the first time since 1948 and have crossed the Rubicon.

Whether or not it leads to something, it is still an added dimension to our policy – the end of mediators, and I think this is a matter of historical significance.”

He expressed his enthusiasm and “happiness and delight” at these meetings and did everything to ensure their continuation, restraining himself from informing the British and Americans about them.

On the other hand, Eshkol and the four leading negotiators did not regard the talks as a means of attaining an arrangement or peace settlement as Hussein did. They used the talks for “sounding out” and “clarifying” the other side’s positions. They refrained from presenting an official, explicitly-defined plan for a peace settlement. They cautiously avoided serious discussion on the principles of peace, preferring instead to present the “schools of thought” that abounded in Israeli politics regarding the Jewish settlement on the eastern front.

EXPRESSION OF ISRAEL’S reluctance to negotiate a peace settlement can be seen in Eshkol’s refusal to take part in the talks even though Hussein wanted him to.

Eshkol informed his ministers, including Eban and Allon, in a meeting prior to Herzog’s departure to London for a talk with Rifa’i on January 27, 1969, that it was unnecessary for him to meet with the king since he first had to receive the government’s approval of basic issues and the time was not ripe for that.

In his talk with Rifa’i, Herzog conveyed the message that “the prime minister thanks the king for suggesting a meeting, and deeply respects his courage and devotion to peace. He is prepared to go anywhere, anytime to get to know him. Nevertheless, the prime minister does not see the possibility of participating in a clarification of views since the government has still not reached a decision on these matters, and he cannot take part if there is no decision. If the prospects for peace appear, the prime minister will convene the government to reach a decision and he himself will join in the clarifications. He appreciates the importance of continuing the clarifications with his two ministers and the king.”

Rifa’i replied that he perfectly understood “the prime minister’s position and that the king had no complaints.” Eshkol’s honesty was laudable.

Given the deadlock, Israel limited the main goal of the meetings to defining what Eban and Herzog called “buying time” to prove that “progress” was being made. The image that Israel nurtured was designed to neutralize the mission of the UN mediator, Gunnar Jarring, and ward off as much as possible US or international initiatives for a peace settlement it believed would be to its disadvantage. In effect, it succeeded beyond expectation, “thanks” to Hussein, who cooperated out of necessity.

As a result of the freeze in the political talks, security along the border began to deteriorate, especially in 1969 with Jordan’s participation in Egypt’s War of Attrition. Thus, security became the main subject of the ongoing talks. Given this development, Israel raised the idea of meetings between the two chiefs of staff that were eventually held in London on two occasions. Hussein saw a link between progress in the political talks and his ability to move against the Fedayeen organizations.

Hussein clearly articulated his commitment to Egypt and the Arab world. He repeatedly stated that any settlement or agreement must receive Nasser’s approval.

Several times he confessed to the Israelis that he was coordinating his positions with the Egyptian president.

Hussein felt it important that the Israelis fully understand that he had to receive Nasser’s nationalistic backing.

HUSSEIN REPEATEDLY REITERATED that the agreement had to be honorable so that he could “sell” it to the Arabs, namely there must be no reference to submission of the defeated to the dictates and demands of the victors. Hussein was not pleased with the direction Allon and Eban were taking, especially when they stressed that he “has to remember that he lost the war and must pay the price” in the form of concessions.

The Allon Plan was handed to Hussein for consideration before a serious study had been made on his position and ability to accept or reject it. Even if the plan were presented as the basis for discussion, one would expect from Herzog’s earlier talks that the king would categorically reject it. What, then, was the purpose of repeatedly raising the plan in different forms, after Eban had already done so in May 1968 and the king had rejected it unconditionally? Some of the key points in the Allon Plan had been ambiguously raised by Herzog in his meeting with the king in April and were discussed in greater detail in a September 1968 meeting in which Allon participated.

A seemingly unbridgeable gap regarding the territorial issue immediately surfaced: Israel’s starting point was security – territory as a buffer zone would be the basis for peace. Jordan’s starting point was that peace is the key to security. The Israelis proposed the Jordan River as the security border; the Jordanians insisted on the June 4, 1967, border, which meant a total withdrawal from the occupied territories. The Jordanians immediately announced that the Israeli proposal was “totally unacceptable.”

Hussein’s starting point for a political settlement was Security Council Resolution 242. The bilateral debate was over two issues: the interpretation of the resolution and its implementation. Jordan, like Egypt, favored the Arab interpretation: an Israeli withdrawal from “the territories.” Israel, however, preferred a narrower interpretation: withdrawal from “territories” (minus the definite article). Furthermore, Jordan insisted on an agreement for implementation of the resolution as a condition for progress in the talks under Jarring’s auspices. Israel wanted a preliminary agreement between the two sides on the interpretation of the resolution and its manner of implementation.

Israel’s position stemmed, of course, from the fear that a clearly-worded statement would be interpreted as agreement to the Arab-international interpretation, that is complete withdrawal from “the” occupied territories.

Therefore it was reserved in its “agreement,” merely stating that it “had expressed its agreement to the implementation of the resolution.” This was not formally correct, and the Jordanians dismissed it.

Senior figures presented the official position in two declarations, both of which were shown to Hussein as proof of Israel’s desire to implement them: On February 12, 1968, Eban informed UN Special Representative Gunnar Jarring of Israel’s acceptance of the Security Council’s call in 242 “for the promotion of agreement on the establishment of peace with secure and recognized boundaries” (this formula of acceptance was, at that time, the latest of several formulations of its position on the resolution).

The acceptance formula was reiterated in ambassador Yosef Tekoah’s statement to the council on May 1: “In declarations and statements made publicly and to Mr. Jarring, my government has indicated its acceptance of the UN Security Council resolution for the promotion of a peace agreement and establishment of a just and durable peace. I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab state on all matters included in that resolution.”

In his UN General Assembly speech on October 8, Eban cited these statements and concluded: “Israel has accepted the Security Council resolution for the establishment of a just and lasting peace and declared its readiness to negotiate agreement on all the principles mentioned therein.”

Thus the acceptance rested on two points: that the resolution did not specify the details of the envisaged settlement and that, consequently, it could not be implemented without negotiations and agreement between the parties concerned.

In a letter to Jarring on February 19, 1968, Eban explained: “The resolution is a framework for agreement [underlined in original]. It cannot be fulfilled without a direct exchange of views and proposals leading to bilateral contractual commitments.”

Hussein, in coordination with Egypt, demanded in almost every meeting that Israel declare its willingness to implement UNSCR 242 as a condition to Jordan’s (and Egypt’s) agreeing to a meeting of the two counties’ foreign ministers in New York under the auspices of Jarring.

The question of Jerusalem’s status roused a bitter debate. It was, perhaps, the most irreconcilable of all core issues. The positions of the two parties were absolutely clear. As expected, political and religious factors were involved, as well as historical and emotional elements for the Jewish people, Arabs, and the entire Muslim world. For the Jordanians there was the added factor of the Hashemite family’s historical ties to the city.

The position presented to the king and Rifa’i by Herzog, Eban and Allon can be summarized as follows: Jerusalem would remain united and, of course, would be as before the capital of Israel. The Muslim sacred area would come under responsibility of Jordan, including the road or corridor leading from the Muslim sacred area to the main Jordan territory outside Jerusalem’s city limits.

The Jordanian position was that Jerusalem (east Jerusalem) should be a Jordanian city. They would recognize the right of Israel in Jewish holy places. They expressed a willingness to discuss a new status for the city which would guarantee free access and movement to all in the city.

From Hussein’s point of view, most of 1969, especially the second half of the year and first half of 1970, was a turning-point in Israeli-Jordanian relations. The abyss had widened and talks at the highest level were frozen. Sometime in the spring of 1969, Hussein apparently realized that the political negotiations had reached a cul-de-sac and the gap in the two sides’ positions was unbridgeable.

Hussein banked on progress in a political settlement that would halt the deterioration on the Israeli-Jordanian border. However, since this was not forthcoming, he was forced to cave in to pressure from Nasser and the Joint Arab Command and take part in the War of Attrition. The practical meaning of this was heating up the border. During this period Hussein spoke at length about the War of Attrition and Egyptian pressure that had led him to believe that war with Israel was inevitable. Rifa’i’s basic charge was: “...in the absence of political progress, it was impossible to order the Legion to totally disband the Fatah. The people of Jordan would simply not agree.” Hostile activity and artillery fire from Jordan peaked in 1969.

Israel’s response included air strikes against the city of Salt and the eastern Rohr Canal. At the same time the internal situation in Jordan began to deteriorate, as the “dual government” with the Fedayeen organizations reached a climax. The king condemned Israel’s responses that heightened the tension and led to outbursts. He described the Israeli action as a massive air attack the likes of which had not been seen since June 1967.

In the April 25, 1969, meeting, Hussein stated that “if, within the next two months, no political progress is made, the incidents will increase and lead to an unavoidable war.” According to Herzog, the king “lifted his hand in exasperation, saying – how much longer can I retain control under these conditions?” Despite this, the Israeli side maintained its position without change. The talks centered on the security issue, the deterioration on the border and Israel’s complaints that the Jordanian army had begun supporting the terrorists and responding on its own initiative to IDF operations with artillery fire.

Israeli-Jordanian relations changed after “Black September” in 1970 and especially after the ouster of Fedayeen bases from Jordan in July 1971, which had been the main obstacle in the 1969 talks. The importance for Jordan of the secret talks was proven during the domestic crisis. Israel became a significant factor in the regime’s existence. Jordan’s internal problems, government stability and, according to Hussein, establishment of a new Jordanian society, all took precedence over the peace process.

THE ATMOSPHERE IN the talks that resumed in October was more accommodating for both sides after their close cooperation in the civil war in Jordan and the Syrian invasion, and in view of the role that Israel had played in the crisis. Bilateral relations now included the exchange of information and coordination with the Americans. Hussein’s situation assessment of the West Bank issue led him to announce his federation plan in March 1972.

The king initiated a meeting with Allon, Herzog and Rifa’i on October 3, 1970 (Herzog’s last meeting and final report). Hussein thanked the Israelis for their assistance in the crisis. He sounded out the possibility of cooperation for a move against Iraqi forces in Jordan, and understanding of the border situation following the Jordanian army’s force reduction there.

Hussein explained that time was needed to build a new political structure in the country and to institute a new society, and was in the process of getting the Iraqis out of the country.

Unlike Eshkol, Meir took part in the secret talks with Hussein, even if no significant changes had been made in the stipulations for an arrangement or peace agreement and its preliminary political and security conditions. Between March 1972 and September 1973 Meir and Hussein met six times, once with Dayan and in the last meeting with Mordechai Gazit, Herzog’s replacement as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Throughout their meetings it became clear that the king did not see the possibility of major border corrections.

The most he was prepared to discuss were changes in the lines dividing villages that separated the villagers from their lands. He explained to Meir that a significant redefinition of the border would spark an outcry against him in the Arab world.

Hussein wanted to hear practical proposals guaranteeing Jordan’s free access to the West Bank Palestinians. This would strengthen the connection and win them over to a federative settlement. However, Meir avoided a positive answer and suggested dispatching an official (Dayan) to discuss the matter.

In the third meeting (November 19, 1972) Hussein and Rifa’i made a special request for a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. Meir proposed leaving the issue for negotiations after the settlement, and in the meantime tying to reach a general understanding about Jordanian military forces not crossing the Jordan River. She suggested an arrangement in which the uninhabited areas of the West Bank would go to Israel and the Jewish settlements would remain in situ. Her figure for the number of Arabs living on the western side of the Jordan Valley was 25,000. Hussein (who well understood the proposal’s subtext) rejected outright her request, saying: “I understand that you are proposing the Allon Plan perhaps in a more limited version, but it is out of the question.”

Dayan brought an interesting proposal to the meeting with the king on June 29, 1972, but one that seems totally “unrealistic” when inter-Arab conditions of the period and Hussein’s status after his brutal expulsion of the Fedayeen camps in Jordan are taken into account. He suggested a defense pact with Jordan in exchange for the king’s guarantee not to join an Arab coalition against Israel as it had done in 1967. He added that Israel was even prepared to sign a security treaty. Hussein naturally rejected the idea, and offered a more modest counterproposal: establishing a security fence along the southern border to block infiltrators and terrorists.

Dayan’s scheme was not brought up again. Dayan should have foreseen Hussein’s rejection of such a plan. It shows that he, like Allon, despite their connections and numerous talks with the king, did not really comprehend his limitations and weakness of his regime in the Arab arena. From this point of view Hussein followed Nasser, where any concession to Israel was tantamount to surrender. Hussein was as proud a nationalist as any other Arab leader in the period, only his method of achieving his objectives was different from that of the other Arab leaders.

Until the Oslo Accords, Hussein continued to act as a contractor for returning the West Bank to the Palestinians.

In July 1988 he announced Jordan’s final break. In this way he acknowledged the fact that “Black September” had hastened the process whereby the West Bank was being separated from his kingdom.

His post-Six Day War assessment that time was working against him was absolutely correct. Given this basic change, and taking into account the developments in Palestinian national issues, the establishment of a Palestinian state, on the West Bank at least, was a certainty. The question was one of timing.

More than 40 years later the core issues in the solution to the West Bank remain unchanged. Only one fact has altered – instead of the Jordanians on one side of the equation, the Palestinians assumed their place after the Yom Kippur War and, following the Rabat Resolution, became the main Arab party determining the future of the West Bank, thus rendering the Jordanian option as the solution to the West Bank anachronistic.

This article is adapted from an article published in a special edition of the Israel Studies journal, edited by Prof. Ilan Troen and Dr. Natan Aridan. The journal was established by Ben-Gurion University’s Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, and is cosponsored with the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University published by Indiana University Press.


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