US amb. to Israel: Change of administration can damage Abraham Accords

Friedman willing to meet Palestinians now despite ‘insulting ingratitude’

Felice Friedson speaks with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya.  (photo credit: MATTY STERN / US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
Felice Friedson speaks with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya.
Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has represented the United States through a period that belies the Middle East’s reputation for stagnation and intransigence. Not without controversy, the region emerged as what is arguably the Trump Administration’s strong suit as a series of “impossibilities” fell by the wayside.
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson sat with the ambassador at his residence in Herzliya where they discussed the issues and events that define the Trump term to the Middle East.
The Media Line: Mr. Ambassador, so much has happened in the Middle East on your watch. The Middle East has long been seen as immune to diplomatic progress. Enter the Trump Administration, and we’ve seen a remarkable change that most recently includes the Abraham Accords – peace agreements between Israel, and now two Gulf states. What was the single significant factor that had turned things around?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, first Felice, thank you for having me and I’ll give you the answer in one word: trust. The president established trust with the players in the region; restored trust with Israel. That relationship had been to a significant extent fractured over the prior eight years. And he established trust with many of our allies in the Gulf as to which the same phenomenon was true. He kept promises that he had made. I think the single, most important thing he did to make peace counter-intuitively was moving the embassy to Jerusalem because it showed that he could keep a promise. It showed that he stood with allies and that he didn’t flinch from rogue states that were making baseless threats. I think when people saw that, they said, “Well, this is somebody that we can trust. This is somebody that we can make a deal with.” His word is his bond and that made a huge difference going forward.
TML: So, let’s go through those decisions. We’re talking about the Golan Heights as well. We’re talking about the decisions to recognize Israel’s sovereignty. There is an endless list of voices warning that the region is going to erupt in violence. Why didn’t it?
Ambassador Friedman: I think the region is … it’s certainly volatile, but all the work that we did, all the conversations we had, you know, we didn’t just do this on the fly. We did a lot of work. We did a lot of studying. We spoke to a lot of people, and our conclusion was very different from many of the experts. We just did not see that level of hostility to these decisions. I think, frankly, most people knew, they’ve known for years and years and years, that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. They’ve known for years, that as between the State of Israel and either Hafez Assad, or Bashar Assad, there’s no question as to where the equities lied on the Golan Heights, or the security imperatives. They knew that after the debacle with the evacuation of Gaza, they knew that Israel wasn’t going to go through another one of those self-inflicted wounds that could result in potentially all this internal discord. So, I think people understood all these things [that] for some odd reason prior administrations decided to indulge Palestinian fantasies about what could happen that were totally out of touch with reality, but the rest of the world, was not driven by those fantasies. They were driven by reality as we were, and as we started to kind of actualize that reality, not surprisingly we just didn’t see that much reaction.
TML: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had declared that the Palestinian Authority would have nothing to do with the American initiatives and they ended cooperation with Israel. Then peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was announced. How did it come together?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, look, it may look somewhat truncated based upon, you know, from an outside view. But remember, what was the first thing the president did in terms of international diplomacy? He went to Saudi Arabia. He spoke to, I think more than 50 Arab leaders. He explained the new view of the United States that there was no longer going to be any indulgence of terrorism and that these countries had to take the hard steps internally that they needed to take to make this region a safer place. That was his message. And first of all, it resonated. And second of all, over the next three something years, three-and-a-half years until we got to the peace with the Emirates, this has been an ongoing goal of the Trump administration. It’s not as if we were heading down a path, one path with the Palestinians. We hit a closed door. We were always looking to create greater regional stability, as well as a peace with the Palestinians, but not one at the expense of the other.
TML: The ceiling has been broken and bilateral agreements are in hand; presumably the sky is the limit. So what can we expect next? You know, we’ve seen agreements signed in technology, moving ahead, [and in] banking. It’s quite interesting and quite phenomenal. What can you share?
Ambassador Friedman: Well look, I spent most of yesterday in meetings, closed door meetings, with [U.S. Treasury] Secretary Mnuchin, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the finance minister of the United Arab Emirates, [and] some of the other high-ranking officials of the UAE. Here’s what struck me because I’m not an expert in finance or transportation or overflights. I am pretty good at reading people. You remember the look on Yitzchak Rabin’s face, alav hashalom [peace be upon him], shaking hands with Yasser Arafat. Now that was, that was not a look of someone who had unbridled happiness or optimism or trust in his counterpart. I mean, I think he did what he thought was the right thing to do, and I think many people agree, and I’m not here to judge that decision, but that was not a peace of warmth or of mutual respect.
That’s exactly the opposite of what we have here. I’m in the room and I’m seeing people that really, really want to advance the ball as far as it will go. Yesterday, they put in a formal request already to open up a formal embassy in Israel. We’re talking, I don’t know, maybe every few hours there is going to be a flight back and forth from Tel Aviv to Dubai or Abu Dhabi. They are going to work on, I think, a lot of supply chain issues that I think we’ve all now focused on post-COVID. Nobody wants to rely upon a supply source halfway around the world, so working on vaccine technology to make sure that there is that resource that exists right in the region. All kinds of things, but they were almost, if I can say, tripping over each other to come up with more and more ideas about what could be done. The sky is truly the limit, and it’s fun to watch, because again, we’re not, we don’t need to police this or oversee it; they’re doing that on their own.
TML: How do you feel that this helps the American people, because they’re seeing it as sort of a regional thing? And then yesterday, Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo of course talked about some of the declarations of things that are going to happen between the United Arab Emirates and America, between Saudi Arabia and America, which people need to realize [that] they’re almost two tracks going hand in hand.
Ambassador Friedman: Well, look, America has been in the Middle East since the days of Thomas Jefferson, since they were fighting pirates on the Barbary coast. You know, we get drawn into the Middle East. It’s something that we need to do for our national security.
Now, I don’t think it even matters who is in the White House. I think there is a trend that America’s footprint in the Middle East is going to shrink over time, shrink responsibly, shrink in a way that is in America’s best interest, but the footprint’s going to shrink. And as the footprint shrinks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the threats shrink correspondingly so as the footprint shrinks and the threats remain, you need allies. Now Israel has been the gold standard of allies for America and this region for many, many years, but the UAE has been an enormous ally of the of the United States as well.
Having the Emirates partnering with Israel in this region, – remember, Israel has incredible intelligence capabilities and defense capabilities and is a great partner of the United States – but the Emirates is right across the Straits of Hormuz from Iran, and the threat is identical. And to have a really strong, reliable ally in that region, it makes the US safer, it makes it less reliant upon its own blood and treasure, and it at the same time it keeps US interests safe. So, it’s very much within keeping with US policy.
TML: I want to go back for a moment to the treaties that were brokered between Jordan and Israel, and of course, Egypt and Israel. Can the Abraham Accord have an impact on the people-to-people aspects with the Jordanians and the Egyptians watching what’s happening with the people of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain?
Ambassador Friedman: I think it’s already having an effect. I’m looking at some polls. Again, I don’t, I can’t vouch for them, but the polls, even in Egypt and Jordan, which I think, I think most people would say the peace has not trickled down to a warm view among the people. I think people seem to think it’s changing. I think there’s a… You know, when we said that this was an icebreaker, we had that, those relationships in mind as well. Obviously, there already exist peace agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan, but what it does is it just opens up people’s imagination as to what can be, and I think it does have a positive effect.
TML: The strong announcement of the visa waiver plays into this. Now here, with the UAE, that’s the first signing of that kind of agreement.
Ambassador Friedman: Yes!
TML: Do you feel it’s going to happen in Bahrain? And then let’s look further, what’s the next step that you envision?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, look, it’s really a big deal, right? Israel has a visa waiver program with an Arab country. It’s function, obviously more than anything else of security considerations, and it gets handled by the professionals, so I wouldn’t put this in the category of a political move, because the politics is driven a lot by professional security assessments. Now they got comfortable with the UAE. How they will get comfortable or not with other countries? I couldn’t predict, but I think directionally we’re heading there, certainly, and I think, I wish we could have done more over the last few years with the United States and Israel. We got kind of waylaid by a much bigger problem with regard to closing our borders to protect people from getting sick. When that’s over, I think we’ll revisit that as well.
TML: Sudan, off the terrorist list right now. Do you think it was the right move? Do you think it’s going to lead to normalization with Israel as well?
Ambassador Friedman: I think it was the right move because I think we need to be encouraging Sudan. They moved mountains to get to a much better place, a much less threatening place, and of course, they’ve now come up with an amount of money that was acceptable to I believe a lot of the lawyers who represent the victims, or the victims themselves. I don’t want to get ahead of anyone else on normalization, but I think I’m sure we’re heading in that direction at some point.
TML: Saudi Arabia, nods and winks, lots of things have happened with the Saudi okay, [which] are not public, but you see a big change even in what’s happening in their newspapers. It’s talking about Israel, which never happened six months ago. What’s happening?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, you know, the press is incredible, right? I mean, there was a well-known Saudi lawyer who I think has more than a quarter of a million followers on Twitter. He really, really gave it to the Palestinians for the way they treated the Emiratis who went to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque. I mean, just, I think, kind of disgusted by the treatment, which was… I think he was absolutely right to feel that way. Look, whether it’s that, whether it’s other Saudi leaders, whether it’s the airspace, whether it’s Bahrain joining the circle of peace, the Saudis have made enormous strides. Now, I think you know, they should follow their own internal timeline. We’re not pushing. This is all organically going forward. Let’s see how this develops, but I can tell you, we’ve all been extremely grateful to the contribution that the Saudis have made to this overall process.
TML: The Abraham Fund that was just announced. Will that trickle down to the small businesses, because really the entire Middle East is made up predominantly of the small business owners?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, I think that the answer is, I’m not sure because this is just getting started, how the projects will be funded. But look, if you run a small business, this is sort of, if you run a small business whether it’s in Judea and Samaria or in Israel or in Jordan, you need to be able to move goods freely. You need to be able to move people freely. That’s perhaps the most important component of it. Now, you heard yesterday that one of the things that’s going to happen is the modernization of the checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel. It’s a very big deal. I mean, you’ve seen what the old-fashioned checkpoints look like, and there already are some modern checkpoints. The modern checkpoints, it takes you, it’s like going through a toll booth. I mean, you put your ID card, they scan your face, you put your bag on the detector and you go through. It’s very, very quick. And I think that that will certainly trickle down to small businesses because it’s very important. Beyond that, I mean, a lot of infrastructure is contemplated by this, all those things, whether it’s energy, whether it’s electric, water, [etc.]. I think these things are all going to be very important to small businesses.
TML: Many people say water is the next war. Do you feel that there are particular countries that Israel should be aligning with in terms of development of water technology? The UAE has been involved in that.
Ambassador Friedman: Look, Israel is, I think, the world leader, or one of the world leaders in water technology. They have a lot to offer, especially in arid places like the Middle East and Africa. They’re doing it already, but I think that they are going to… I would see that, again, that’s one of those technologies that everybody wants, and I think Israel is delighted to export that technology wherever people wanted it. It is completely benign to give people drinking water.
TML: Is it accurate to say that the game plan of the Trump Administration was to reach agreements with the Sunni states first and then bring the Palestinians back? Is that possible still?
Ambassador Friedman: I think it’s possible. I think the Palestinians are sort of in one of those final stages of denial. It’s hard to watch. It’s completely self-defeating. There was a leadership problem. There was significant corruption at the top. I’ve said this many times, one of the things to me that tells the whole story is [that] I’ve traveled with Prime Minister Netanyahu to the United States. I’ve been on his plane a few times. He sits in a seat with maybe a couple of seats separate from everybody else, but now more seats with the COVID virus, but he flies like a regular commercial passenger. And Mahmoud Abbas, whose…where the Palestinian GDP per capita is maybe 1/15th that of Israel, he flies around in a $75 million Boeing business jet.
To me, that kind of tells you all that you need to know about the leadership. The Israeli leadership, whether it was Ben-Gurion, Begin, the early years of Israel, the leaders on either side, Ben Gurion, Begin, Golda Meir, these people lived extremely, extremely, modestly.
As they were trying to build a state, they were full of self-sacrifice. Now, you can debate their policies, but they had all this thing in common, which is they were not going to spend precious funds on their own luxuries. Well, it’s not the Palestinian way, and you’ve got a lot of concentration of wealth among the upper elite and a lot of people are really unhappy about it. The other typical Palestinian.
TML: The people suffer at the end of the day, because what we see is a break in dialogue between the Americans and the Palestinians. They’re trying to get water and find creative ways. They’ve actually looked at Israel to create desalination plants and now US aid money has dried up as well so they can’t get that money. So, what would you say to the average Palestinian saying, “Help! I need the help the Americans were giving me, but it’s not coming?”
Ambassador Friedman: Well, I think, first of all, America has provided the Palestinians with more financial, humanitarian assistance per capita than any other place in the world by far. And we have given more money to the Palestinians compared to any other nation by a power of at least five compared to every other country. So, we’ve got nothing to apologize for in terms of our assistance to the Palestinians. But it just can’t be a bridge to nowhere, and that’s what it is right now. It is a bridge to nowhere. The Palestinians want to take, but they’re not willing to really engage in a serious way, and not only that, but it’s almost embarrassing the way in which they insult the United States. They express no appreciation for the help that we’ve, by the way, in which we continue to provide under the radar.
So, it’s really a leadership problem. We really do want to reach out to the Palestinians. We’ve messaged them and I’m happy to do it right now. We want to help the Palestinian people. By the way, the State of Israel wants to help the Palestinian people. It is in Israel’s interest for the Palestinian people to be healthy, to be prosperous, to have hope and optimism about their lives. It’s in everybody’s interest, but we have to break this, this log jam of this. The Palestinian business plan has been for a generation a narrative of victimization, and they would rather that their people suffer in order to maintain a political edge in order to go run around the Gulf and fundraise off of their people’s suffering. They really take concrete steps just to make everybody’s lives better. Even if we, you know, we’ve been saying from the beginning, let’s take concrete steps to improve the quality of life and then we will see where the politics go.
Obviously, if people are happier, the politics can only get better. We got massive resistance. We’re not taking help unless we have a political solution first. You saw that in Bahrain. They boycotted Bahrain. There were people there with checkbooks, massive checkbooks, billions of dollars, no, no, financial assistance without a political solution.
TML: So [Palestinian] Prime Minister [Mohammad] Shtayyeh has recently said that “it is regrettable that our brothers are no longer a help to us.” Do you have any reason to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian track is any less intractable as a result of the Abraham Accords?
Ambassador Friedman: I think that there is a huge peace dividend that will come to the region and I believe the Palestinian people are well-educated, well-informed, and well-meaning, and I think that as they see that peace dividend, I believe like all other people, they’re going to want a part of it. They’re going to want better education for the kids. They’re going to want better healthcare. They’re going to want better opportunity, better flow of goods and services, better energy. It’s all there. It’s all there. They just have to sit down and act in a way which is serious, nonthreatening. Enough of the histrionics. Enough of the tantrums. Just sit down and have civilized discussions on serious issues and there’ll be progress.
TML: Where does this all leave the Israeli plans for annexation?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, look, I think you know I don’t like that word.
TML: What word would you use?
Ambassador Friedman: I think annexation connotes a circumstance where the only basis you have to take territory is that you took it in a military conquest, meaning you have no rights independent of your military conquest. I think even before the Six-Day War, I think that Israel had the best rights to that territory legally of any of the litigants. And that was the view, not just my view in 2020, but if you have a, the Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow in 1967, former Dean of the Yale Law School represented the United States in negotiating UN [Resolution] 242, so he’s a pretty serious guy, and that was his legal analysis. So, I think Israel’s rights predated 1967, and I think when they captured Judea and Samaria from Jordan, nobody accepted Jordan’s rights to that territory at all. And Jordan has since renounced its rights in 1995. So, for all those reasons, I don’t, I’m sorry to go off on that tangent, but annexation would not be my choice of words. 
But look, the issue of sovereignty is one that we see being an aid of our vision for peace. We think it’s important for Israel to actualize that vision and to recognize its sovereignty over the communities that none of us think, nobody, nobody in the whole world thinks, that Israel is ever going to stand up and abandon any of these territories. I mean, these have enormous biblical significance – Shilo, Beit-El. They’ll never own, I mean, no one is expecting Israel to give that up.
So, we think it’s a step forward in the president’s vision for peace, but again, it’s part of a vision for peace and now we have this opportunity to actually achieve peace, with a bunch of countries as to which the sovereignty declaration I think would be a distraction right now and it would create a certain amount of friction that I don’t think anybody needs. So, look, the joint communique from Israel, the Emirates and the United States when we announced this on August 13th, was that it was suspended. Suspended is by definition temporary. So, it is temporary, which means that will eventually come back onto the table and it will come on the table after we’ve kind of exhausted all the opportunities for peace. I wouldn’t venture a guess as to how long that’ll take, but it will come back on the table at that point, and it will be done in the context, I think, of the president’s vision for peace.
TML: Ambassador Friedman, there are those who suggest that the UAE and Bahrain agreements were made possible by the president’s promise to sell F-35s – the fighter jets. In fact, some critics of the administration have called the peace agreements “arms deals.” Are the arms part of the agreement?
Ambassador Friedman: No, and I don’t know why anybody would say that; they have no basis to say that. I was in a room yesterday with lots of people on both sides. That issue never came up. Look, I think people need to understand on the issue of F-35s or any other weaponry, we are committed to Israel’s qualitative military edge, even if we weren’t, we have to be because that’s the law of the United States.
TML: But is there an issue here in terms of losing that military edge?
Ambassador Friedman: No! There’s no issue whatsoever. Look, we cannot, as a matter of law, we are a nation of laws. We cannot, as a matter of law, sell weaponry, in a manner that jeopardizes Israel’s qualitative military edge. We’ve been clear on that since the beginning. And look, the reality is that this issue of the QME is something that exists. It’s a constant dynamic process that exists behind the scenes, not with the politicians, but with the experts, the pilots, the military experts, the engineers. There’s a robust discussion that takes place in Washington. Everybody who sits around the table, be they Israeli, be they American, all want to get to the same place, which is to make the right decisions to preserve the QME. And whatever weaponry is sold to the Emirates will be sold in conformity with the QME, that the details of that, the technical aspects of that, number one, I’m not an expert, [and] number two, if I was, I wouldn’t tell you because it’s not appropriate for public discussion, but I have sat in on discussions and I can tell you that sitting in those discussions, I learned a lot and I took away from it one thing which is that everybody’s on the same page, Israeli and American to preserve the QME.
TML: Is Iran the catalyst to the Abraham Accords. Are they really the reason?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, they certainly are a reason. Look here, common enemies have always been a factor in diplomacy, but I’ll tell you, and this is why I’m so optimistic about this. Iran is a factor. It’s not the only factor, and I don’t even think it’s the major factor. I think as I’m talking to some of my counterparts from the Emirates yesterday, we were looking at each other and it was sort of why didn’t we do this long ago? I mean, this is so obvious. The people of the Emirates and the people of Israel [have] so much to gain from each other and they like each other, and they’ve never been at war with each other. There is no reason why the Emirates should have this kind of Arab League reflexive, condemnation of Israel. For what? 
Israel has relations. I don’t think that Israel and the Emirates see everything eye to eye with regards to the Palestinians or otherwise, but by the way, neither does Canada see eye to eye with Israel. Neither does the UK. I mean, you don’t have to be aligned on every single issue in order to have wonderful diplomatic relations. So I think, yeah, sure Iran is a factor, but I think that the mutual respect that these countries have for each other and the mutual recognition of what they can do together as being sort of exponentially more than they can do independent of each other [which] is probably the highest, the greatest factor.
TML: American polling raises the specter of a change in US administrations. There’s concern that these achievements we’ve discussed could be walked back. And in particular, pressure on Iran might be lifted. Can the achievements in the Middle East survive a change of a US administration?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, look, I think an administration with a different approach could do huge damage. No question about it. The most obvious area would be with regard to Iran. Iran is on the ropes. They are weakened. They’re far weaker now than they were before we let them off the hook with the JCPO, right? If you let them off the hook again, we will all have to answer to our children and grandchildren as to how we created a terrorist nuclear power, which is what we will do if we let Iran off the ropes right now. So, I don’t want to predict what will happen in the future with regards to a new administration. I frankly don’t think there’ll be a new administration, but look, it’s a big risk. I think it’s important because I think people do tend to politicize this too much, whatever we’ve done with regard to the Middle East has been done because we thought it was in the best interest of the United States.
That’s always been the lens that we’ve looked at everything, what’s in the best interest of the United States? Not what’s on anyone’s political wish list. I would hope that because of that, all the things that we’ve done would be enduring, would stand the test of time. I’ve heard already that there’s no desire to move the embassy back from Jerusalem. Well, of course there shouldn’t be, that’s the national wellness, the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Why would anybody want to do that? Why would anybody want to talk about giving the Golan Heights to a butcher, like Bashar Assad and threaten Israel’s security? I mean, why would anybody want to undo that? By the same token, why would anybody want to take the most threatening malign sponsor of terrorism in the world and fund them? To me, these are easy things that should be perpetuated because they’re great for America, but I do worry.
TML: From your perspective, as one deeply involved with the regional players, what would you tell your successors that would transcend politics and address prospects for peace in the Middle East?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, like the first thing I would do would be to tell my predecessors, without being critical of anyone in particular, some of them have violated this, this rule, which is get to know Israel better, get to know the people better. And don’t think that you understand Israel better than they do. And don’t think that your job is to save Israel from themselves. Israel is a mature country. It’s older than more than half the countries in the United Nations [which] are younger than Israel. Israel has, with all [of] its political dimensions, Israel has a pretty advanced view, a pretty developed view of, of what it can and can’t do, what it’s prepared to do and not do in terms of diplomacy, in terms of trade, in terms of commerce. I mean, they are real first world country and there’s been a lot of paternalism that I’ve seen in the diplomatic outreach of my predecessors.
We’re going to help you. I never did that. I came in here and had great respect for the Israeli people and came to understand that they really know what they’re doing, and just as every other ally that we have in the world, we listen to them and we tend to respect their views if they’re made in good faith. We do that here too, and I think that the notion that anyone other than the Israeli people know what’s best for Israel, is a pretty insulting view, and we’ve really tried very hard not to take that view.
TML: Ambassador Friedman, I sat with you before you were sitting in the seat of ambassador. Looking back at these years, what do you think you did best? What do you think you would have done differently?
Ambassador Friedman: Well, look, I hate looking back, I just am not a look back kind of person. I mean, maybe one day, you know, I can’t get any grayer, but maybe when I’m older I’ll look back at those things, but it’s not… Looking back, sort of, to me, makes it feel like, you’re done. I don’t ever want to be done, whether I have this job or not. I never want to be done with the job of advancing the US-Israel relationship. Look, the one thing that advantaged me more than anything else was [that] I had a deep, long relationship with the president of the United States. I had a relationship of trust with the president of the United States. I respected him. I understood his way of approaching a problem.
I wanted to advance US policy in a way that was good for America, good for the president, good for the Israeli people. And I think over time, a relatively short amount of time, that the entire body politic of America, the government, even the swamp as they say, kind of was willing to…because they saw that relationship and how strong it was and how much trust there was between the president and me. And of course, Jared, who I also know, [and] knew, long before the administration. I think that we gained a lot of respect within the US establishment, the State Department establishment, the policy establishment that we were working closely to fulfill an American agenda, but I really attributed it all to the trust that the president had placed in me; the authority he gave me. It starts with that and it ends with that, frankly.
TML: And on the flip side, is there something looking back you would’ve done differently, or maybe you regret?
Ambassador Friedman: Look, I worked 18 hours a day for four years. I am sure I could have done things better. You can always do things better. I’ll do that post-mortem, probably down the road a little bit, but sure. I mean, look, you do the best you can, but you always make mistakes. The key, I think, is not to be afraid to make mistakes, which I don’t think I was.
TML: Ambassador David Friedman, the American ambassador to the State of Israel. Thank you so much for the time.
Ambassador Friedman: My pleasure, Felice. Thank you.
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