Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 19, 2013

The High Price of Kerry’s Pyrrhic Victory

After weeks of looking silly chasing his tail in what appeared to be a futile attempt to revive Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry is looking like a winner this afternoon as he was able to announce that he had been able to “establish a basis” for a new round of negotiations of between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Assuming the Palestinians actually show up next week in Washington as Kerry thinks they will, this will be something of a victory for a secretary who has gone from humiliation to humiliation during his brief term in office. Even if all it amounts to is a photo op, Kerry can claim it is evidence of the diplomatic prowess he thinks he possesses. But before he starts writing his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (if it isn’t already composed at least in his head), we need to understand that it is highly unlikely that anything good may come of this initiative. Even worse, the price the United States has paid for getting even this far may be far higher than any possible good that could come from this event.

It should be understood that the tentative and highly conditioned agreement to return to negotiations was only won by an American agreement to accept Palestinian preconditions that President Obama had already rejected and that would, in no small part, tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel:

Ahmed Majdalani, a PLO executive committee member, told the Associated Press that Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements. He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months.

This came after President Obama phoned Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday to pressure him to cooperate with Kerry. Israel had already agreed to talk without preconditions, but apparently the president wanted Netanyahu’s assurance that he would not protest the way the secretary had buckled to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s conditions. But having arrived at negotiations in this manner, neither Kerry nor Obama seems to have considered what comes next. The Palestinians have already made it abundantly clear that they won’t actually negotiate in good faith but will only show up expecting the U.S. to deliver Israeli concessions to them on a silver platter. Even if he wanted to sign an accord, Abbas hasn’t the power to speak for all Palestinians. Since that is a certain formula for failure, it is incumbent on Washington to understand that another breakdown in talks could serve as a new excuse for Palestinian violence.

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After weeks of looking silly chasing his tail in what appeared to be a futile attempt to revive Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry is looking like a winner this afternoon as he was able to announce that he had been able to “establish a basis” for a new round of negotiations of between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Assuming the Palestinians actually show up next week in Washington as Kerry thinks they will, this will be something of a victory for a secretary who has gone from humiliation to humiliation during his brief term in office. Even if all it amounts to is a photo op, Kerry can claim it is evidence of the diplomatic prowess he thinks he possesses. But before he starts writing his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (if it isn’t already composed at least in his head), we need to understand that it is highly unlikely that anything good may come of this initiative. Even worse, the price the United States has paid for getting even this far may be far higher than any possible good that could come from this event.

It should be understood that the tentative and highly conditioned agreement to return to negotiations was only won by an American agreement to accept Palestinian preconditions that President Obama had already rejected and that would, in no small part, tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel:

Ahmed Majdalani, a PLO executive committee member, told the Associated Press that Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements. He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months.

This came after President Obama phoned Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday to pressure him to cooperate with Kerry. Israel had already agreed to talk without preconditions, but apparently the president wanted Netanyahu’s assurance that he would not protest the way the secretary had buckled to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s conditions. But having arrived at negotiations in this manner, neither Kerry nor Obama seems to have considered what comes next. The Palestinians have already made it abundantly clear that they won’t actually negotiate in good faith but will only show up expecting the U.S. to deliver Israeli concessions to them on a silver platter. Even if he wanted to sign an accord, Abbas hasn’t the power to speak for all Palestinians. Since that is a certain formula for failure, it is incumbent on Washington to understand that another breakdown in talks could serve as a new excuse for Palestinian violence.

The reason why rational observers have been so wary of Kerry’s initiative is not just the fact that the Palestinians had no interest in returning to negotiations they’ve been boycotting for four and a half years. Both Israel and the Palestinians didn’t wish to obstruct Kerry’s desire for talks. He might have left off once the Palestinians demonstrated their lack of interest, but since he persisted in this manner, they felt they had no choice but to show up.

But Abbas and the PA are too weak to agree to any deal that would conclusively end a conflict that neither Hamas nor much of Fatah actually wants to end. Recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn, is something that no Palestinian leader can afford to do at this point in history. The culture of Palestinian politics that has revolved around the delegitimization of Israel and Jewish history makes it impossible. That’s why they’ve already rejected three Israelis offers of a Palestinian state including almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. So even if Netanyahu were foolish enough to agree to withdrawals that would, in effect, recreate the independent Palestinian terror state that already exists in Gaza in the West Bank, Abbas still can’t say yes.

But by forcing this confrontation at a time when conditions simply don’t exist for a resolution of the conflict, Kerry is not just occupying himself with an issue that is clearly less pressing that the other crises in the Middle East like Egypt, Syria or the Iranian nuclear threat. Since failure is foreordained and the Palestinians are likely to bolt the talks at the first opportunity, what will follow will be far worse than merely a continuation of the present stalemate. The Palestinians will treat any outcome—even one created by their intransigence—as an excuse for either an upsurge in violence against Israel or an effort to use their status at the United Nations to work to further isolate the Jewish state.

Just as damaging, by again putting the U.S. seal of approval on the Palestinian demand for the 1967 lines as Israel’s borders, Kerry and Obama have also worsened Israel’s position once the talks collapse. Any outcome other than total Israeli acquiescence to Palestinian demands would also serve as justification for more European Union sanctions on Israel, even, as is likely, if such a surrender were to fail to be enough to entice the Palestinians to take yes for an answer.

Netanyahu will be criticized by many in his party for going along with what is likely to be at best, a farce, and, at worst, a dangerous trap. But having already rightly said that he was willing to negotiate with Abbas under any circumstance, he must send representatives to Washington. But neither he, the people of Israel, nor the Jewish state’s friends in this country should be under any illusions that what will ensue from Kerry’s diplomatic experiment will be helpful.

As much as Israel wants and needs peace, the conflict is at a stage when the best that can be hoped for is that it be managed in such a way as to minimize violence and encourage Palestinian development. Though Kerry is offering the PA lots of cash, there is little chance it will be used appropriately or get the desired result.

Next week’s talks may be heralded as an unprecedented opportunity for peace, but the odds are, we will look back on this moment the way we do foolhardy efforts such as President Clinton’s Camp David summit in 2000 that set the stage for a bloody intifada that cost the lives of over a thousand Jews and far more Palestinians. The agreement to talk about talking is a pyrrhic victory for Kerry. Those who cheer this effort should think hard about who will bear the responsibility for the bloodshed that could result from Kerry’s folly.

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Obama Speaks on Race After the Verdict

Today, Barack Obama delivered an unexpected 18-minute talk on the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. The remarks were heartfelt, and interesting, and worth wrestling with, and troubling. He sought to explain, in a manner I thought measured and eloquent, the reasons why black people have taken this case so personally and have reacted so emotionally to it from the outset and after the verdict—essentially that it all goes back to the unfairness and discomfort of being judged visually as a result of skin color. He said “black folks” understand that a young black male is more likely to be assaulted by one of his peers than by anyone else, but that the violence endemic to the black community has roots in a violent past, and that the reaction to cases like these suggest a level of frustration about the history of unequal treatment and violence.

I think all this is true, and an entirely accurate description of the emotions around the case—which has caused people to throw everything they don’t like into a blender and mix up a racialist stew, from concealed-carry gun laws and “stand your ground” laws to stop-and-frisk policies to (Obama’s personal example) being in an elevator where someone clutches her bag in fear that the future 44th president might steal it.

The president concluded, sensibly given some of the ludicrous things said over the past week, by pointing out how much better things are in America than they were during his youth for his kids: “I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”

He also splashed cold water on the notion of a “national conversation” on race, one of the cliches of the past week: “haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”

But here’s the problem at the core.

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Today, Barack Obama delivered an unexpected 18-minute talk on the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. The remarks were heartfelt, and interesting, and worth wrestling with, and troubling. He sought to explain, in a manner I thought measured and eloquent, the reasons why black people have taken this case so personally and have reacted so emotionally to it from the outset and after the verdict—essentially that it all goes back to the unfairness and discomfort of being judged visually as a result of skin color. He said “black folks” understand that a young black male is more likely to be assaulted by one of his peers than by anyone else, but that the violence endemic to the black community has roots in a violent past, and that the reaction to cases like these suggest a level of frustration about the history of unequal treatment and violence.

I think all this is true, and an entirely accurate description of the emotions around the case—which has caused people to throw everything they don’t like into a blender and mix up a racialist stew, from concealed-carry gun laws and “stand your ground” laws to stop-and-frisk policies to (Obama’s personal example) being in an elevator where someone clutches her bag in fear that the future 44th president might steal it.

The president concluded, sensibly given some of the ludicrous things said over the past week, by pointing out how much better things are in America than they were during his youth for his kids: “I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”

He also splashed cold water on the notion of a “national conversation” on race, one of the cliches of the past week: “haven’t seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”

But here’s the problem at the core.

The president may acknowledge that kids deal with each other better, but what he does not acknowledge, and what those who have lost their balance when it comes to the Trayvon Martin verdict are not acknowledging, is that this country has spent nearly half a century legislating and making policy and discussing how to ameliorate the American history of racism against black people. It has not been ignored; it has not been avoided; it is one of the two or three consuming subjects of our time. The very fact that a black president made the remarks he made about the Trayvon Martin case after having been elected a second time with a combined total of 135 million votes is a far better measure of the United States and its relation to race than anything else that has happened in this country since 2008.

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The GOP’s Deep Hole

I spent the last week in Washington State and had several conversations with people about the Republican Party. What I discovered wasn’t encouraging for the Grand Old Party.  

The people I spoke to are life-long Republican voters, but to a person they were deeply disappointed with the GOP. When I pressed them on why, I heard different, and even competing, explanations. Some thought the Republican Party was too beholden to the Tea Party and too rigid on social issues. They were concerned the GOP was coming across as obstructionist and taking a suicidal position on immigration (by coming across as anti-immigration). Others believed the GOP was too moderate and conciliatory, that they were not Tea Party enough, and that they were taking a suicidal position on immigration (by embracing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants). Their level of unhappiness with the Republican Party was roughly the same—but for entirely different reasons.

Here’s where things get interesting. I decided to do my best Reince Priebus imitation, addressing as specifically and carefully as I could each of the objections that were raised. My interlocutors were often willing to concede the points I made. Yet their negative attitude toward the GOP remained. 

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I spent the last week in Washington State and had several conversations with people about the Republican Party. What I discovered wasn’t encouraging for the Grand Old Party.  

The people I spoke to are life-long Republican voters, but to a person they were deeply disappointed with the GOP. When I pressed them on why, I heard different, and even competing, explanations. Some thought the Republican Party was too beholden to the Tea Party and too rigid on social issues. They were concerned the GOP was coming across as obstructionist and taking a suicidal position on immigration (by coming across as anti-immigration). Others believed the GOP was too moderate and conciliatory, that they were not Tea Party enough, and that they were taking a suicidal position on immigration (by embracing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants). Their level of unhappiness with the Republican Party was roughly the same—but for entirely different reasons.

Here’s where things get interesting. I decided to do my best Reince Priebus imitation, addressing as specifically and carefully as I could each of the objections that were raised. My interlocutors were often willing to concede the points I made. Yet their negative attitude toward the GOP remained. 

As one person pointed out to me after our conversation, the mood was based less on the policy stands of the Republican Party, less on substance, and more on emotion. What has happened, as best as I can tell, is that the reelection of Barack Obama, as well as Democratic gains in the Senate, had a shattering effect on the confidence many Republicans have in the GOP. Their view seems to be that if the Republican Party couldn’t defeat a failed president like Obama or make gains in the Senate in a year that should have favored Republicans, it is manifestly inept. The disappointment in Obama’s victory has turned people who were once highly engaged in politics away from it, even now, nine months after the election. Call it a long post-election hangover. 

This kind of reaction isn’t unusual for a party that lost a presidential election it expected to win, though my sense is the unhappiness and despair runs deeper among Republicans than in the past. Some of this will fade away with time. The president is off to a very rough start in his second term, after all, and Republicans might be re-energized enough, and Democrats despondent enough, that the GOP makes significant gains in the 2014 mid-term elections. But I came away from my trip with a sense that the Republican Party has very deep problems with its own supporters, many of them based on perception more than reality, and it will require politicians with some fairly impressive political talents to revive the party to a dominant position in American politics. It’s a very long way from that right now.

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Peter King Points Out GOP Weakness

It’s doubtful that any of the prominent Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 are shaking in their boots about the prospect of Peter King joining the race. The congressman from New York has many virtues, but it’s unlikely that too many people outside of the circle of his closest friends regard him as a future president or even a candidate who could make even a minor splash in GOP caucuses and primaries. To say that he hasn’t a prayer of winning the nomination would be to understate the odds facing such an effort. Nor does it appear that even King thinks that much of his chances, since the trial balloon he floated yesterday in an interview with ABC news made it very clear that his purpose is not so much to put together a serious effort to win the presidency as it is to give voice to mainstream views on foreign policy in his party that he feels are being given short shrift.

While it’s easy to scoff at a man whose ambitions clearly outstrip his national appeal, King is right about the vacuum in the party on foreign policy issues. The Long Island representative who has earned a reputation as one of the Republicans’ leading spokesmen on national defense and issues relating to the threat from terrorism is worried that the isolationist views of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are not only gaining support in the GOP but are not being contested by leading figures who are thinking about the White House. At the moment, none of the leading contenders are taking issue with the ideas being floated by Paul and to a lesser extent by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or speaking up about the dangers of such a course that is bad policy and bad politics. As much as the national debate is understandably focused on domestic issues involving the need to cut back on President Obama’s drive to expand the scope and the power of government, Republicans cannot hope to win in the future by abandoning their traditional position as the party that believes in a strong American defense and a forward posture toward foreign threats.

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It’s doubtful that any of the prominent Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 are shaking in their boots about the prospect of Peter King joining the race. The congressman from New York has many virtues, but it’s unlikely that too many people outside of the circle of his closest friends regard him as a future president or even a candidate who could make even a minor splash in GOP caucuses and primaries. To say that he hasn’t a prayer of winning the nomination would be to understate the odds facing such an effort. Nor does it appear that even King thinks that much of his chances, since the trial balloon he floated yesterday in an interview with ABC news made it very clear that his purpose is not so much to put together a serious effort to win the presidency as it is to give voice to mainstream views on foreign policy in his party that he feels are being given short shrift.

While it’s easy to scoff at a man whose ambitions clearly outstrip his national appeal, King is right about the vacuum in the party on foreign policy issues. The Long Island representative who has earned a reputation as one of the Republicans’ leading spokesmen on national defense and issues relating to the threat from terrorism is worried that the isolationist views of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are not only gaining support in the GOP but are not being contested by leading figures who are thinking about the White House. At the moment, none of the leading contenders are taking issue with the ideas being floated by Paul and to a lesser extent by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or speaking up about the dangers of such a course that is bad policy and bad politics. As much as the national debate is understandably focused on domestic issues involving the need to cut back on President Obama’s drive to expand the scope and the power of government, Republicans cannot hope to win in the future by abandoning their traditional position as the party that believes in a strong American defense and a forward posture toward foreign threats.

The problem King is pointing out here is that a lot of conservatives are either distracted by domestic priorities or intimidated by the Paul drive to bring the isolationist ideas first championed by his crackpot father into the mainstream from the fever swamps where they have always dwelt. The natural cynicism about government felt by most Republicans has grown during the Obama presidency to the point that Paul’s aberrant views about counter-terror policy are starting to look rational. No one likes foreign conflicts or the burden of paying for national defense, but a failure to address these concerns is a formula for even worse problems in the future. As much as the Kentuckian made a splash with his filibuster over the use of drone strikes, his idea that ordinary citizens need to fear a U.S. drone strike on people sitting in Starbucks is not only absurd; it is a direct blow aimed at America’s capacity to defend itself against genuine threats.

But rather than denouncing Paul’s attempt to undermine the national consensus on the war against Islamist terror, most prominent Republicans have ignored it or given it tacit support. Like former ambassador John Bolton, who sent up some smoke signals of his own last month about a presidential run, all King is doing is alerting us to the fact that someone needs to put forward a coherent response to Paul that will assure the country that the GOP hasn’t retreated into an isolationist funk that will undermine any hope that it can appeal to moderates or Reagan Democrats who will never vote for an isolationist.

Of course, there are possible Republican candidates who can stand up to Paul on foreign and defense policy. One such person is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is an outspoken advocate of a freedom agenda and strong defense. But King still holds a grudge against Rubio for voting against the initial package of aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy because it contained the usual litany of earmark projects that had little to do with helping those affected by the storm. Others, such as Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, might also eventually take on Paul’s views. But until one of these potential contenders starts publicly disagreeing with Paul and Cruz on these issues, people like King and Bolton are going to think there is no alternative but to jump in to provide an alternative to the isolationist trend.

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Didn’t Obama Already Save Detroit?

The news that the city of Detroit is declaring bankruptcy may not surprise many observers who were aware of how economic decline, shrinking population, the burden of huge public employee contracts and political corruption was leading inevitably to this outcome. But it might come as something of a shock to the vast majority of Americans whose only thoughts about the subject prior to today were framed by the demagoguery on the issue that came from President Obama’s reelection campaign. As we all recall, Democrats spent a good deal of 2012 telling us that “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead” and hounding Mitt Romney for saying that Detroit would be better off going bankrupt rather than being bailed out by the federal government. But yesterday we learned that all the sunny talk about what Obama had accomplished did nothing to save the city.

Of course, Democrats will say that when they were talking about “Detroit” last year, they were just using the word as shorthand for the automobile industry and not referring to the Motor City itself. But the memory of the way the president pounded Romney on the issue should do more than point out Obama’s hypocrisy. The collapse of what was once one of America’s great cities should also inform us about the way the liberal project is dooming municipal and state governments around the country as well as Washington to a sea of debt that cannot be sustained. Detroit isn’t just the most spectacular example of urban blight. It’s the poster child for the consequences of liberal governance.

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The news that the city of Detroit is declaring bankruptcy may not surprise many observers who were aware of how economic decline, shrinking population, the burden of huge public employee contracts and political corruption was leading inevitably to this outcome. But it might come as something of a shock to the vast majority of Americans whose only thoughts about the subject prior to today were framed by the demagoguery on the issue that came from President Obama’s reelection campaign. As we all recall, Democrats spent a good deal of 2012 telling us that “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead” and hounding Mitt Romney for saying that Detroit would be better off going bankrupt rather than being bailed out by the federal government. But yesterday we learned that all the sunny talk about what Obama had accomplished did nothing to save the city.

Of course, Democrats will say that when they were talking about “Detroit” last year, they were just using the word as shorthand for the automobile industry and not referring to the Motor City itself. But the memory of the way the president pounded Romney on the issue should do more than point out Obama’s hypocrisy. The collapse of what was once one of America’s great cities should also inform us about the way the liberal project is dooming municipal and state governments around the country as well as Washington to a sea of debt that cannot be sustained. Detroit isn’t just the most spectacular example of urban blight. It’s the poster child for the consequences of liberal governance.

Some liberals are telling us today that Detroit’s experience is so unique that what has happened there can’t be compared to any other city’s problems. It’s true that there is no more absolute example of urban collapse. But Detroit isn’t the only place where the decline of labor-intensive manufacturing and white flight caused a collapse. While other large cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, underwent crises that were met and overcome in the last generation before undergoing revivals, Detroit has been going downhill for more than 60 years. While Detroit had particular problems that may not have been faced elsewhere, the basic conundrum is not unique. But rather than face up to the need to change the old liberal formula of expanding government and letting corruption go unchecked, this bastion of liberalism refused to alter its course. Decades after leaders like Ed Rendell and Rudy Giuliani showed how it was possible to govern places that were thought ungovernable, Detroit continued acting as if the old boodle theory of politics could continue as mayors as well as other politicians were involved in criminal conspiracies rather than reform.

The lesson here is that a government that continued to overpromise and create unfunded liabilities to please political constituencies cannot survive indefinitely. And that goes straight to the glaring problem that was the foundation of President Obama’s false boasts about “saving Detroit” that caused Romney so much trouble last fall.

Detroit’s bankruptcy shows that federal bailouts for industries can’t solve all the country’s problems, especially when cities are sinking under the weight of generous municipal contracts for public employees. It’s true that many other cities that are facing shortfalls because of debts they’ve signed off on to pay off unions are working better than Detroit, where 40 percent of the street lights don’t work and it takes nearly an hour for police to arrive at an average high-priority emergency.

But unless the power of unions to bankrupt municipalities and state governments is cut back—much as Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have tried to do—everywhere, Detroit won’t be the last city to go bankrupt. The accumulation of debt to pay off the promises made by liberals is a problem that threatens cities all over the country, even some that are seemingly in much better shape than Detroit.

The Obama paradigm of building more entitlements like ObamaCare and throwing federal money at regional problems is based on the liberal assumption that the government piper will never have to be paid. Democrats have blasted their Republican counterparts as heartless Tea Party extremists and obstructionists for refusing to play along and let the system go on as it has for decades building debts that can’t ever be met. But unless someone or some group is able to enact real change, Detroit is America’s future, not, as some are telling us, an exception to the rule.

This week we got a wake up call that tells us that Obama didn’t save Detroit from bankruptcy. He is merely one more in a string of liberal enablers that helped create the situation there that may well be replicated elsewhere eventually, even in cities that are not in as dire straits today as Detroit is. It’s time for America to sober up and realize that without government reform based on the end of liberal illusions, Detroit will become a metaphor for how America became like Greece: bankrupt, corrupt, and a shadow of its past faded glories.

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