Netanyahu’s worldview? All means sanctify the pursuit of power – Haaretz

Posted: March 8, 2020 at 10:45 am


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In 2004, political scientist Francis Fukuyama visited Israel and found himself at an unusual event. The author of The End of History and the Last Man shared a stage with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and with Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then finance minister in the government of Ariel Sharon. At that time, several years after the attack of the World Trade Center and while the second intifada raged, the idea that the only political model still relevant in modernity was a combination of liberal-democratic regimes and capitalist-global economies, seemed dubious.

In the discussion, Peres tried to press his own concept of the New Middle East, whose spirit is compatible with Fukuyamas theory. He argued that in conditions of economic prosperity, based on free trade and cooperation between states, regional terrorism would be defeated. Netanyahu offered a far grimmer picture of the Middle East, focusing almost entirely on terrorism. He talked about Palestinian and Islamic fanaticism, about the terrorism they spawn and about the need to fight them determinedly in the foreseeable future. That future, from his point of view, looked like more of the same of what Israel was then going through.

As I left the event, in honor of Fukuyama and his work, I saw a somewhat stunned look on the American who organized the evening. Whats wrong? I asked him. I dont know what to think, he confessed, and explained: Nowhere in the world would I be able to persuade two former prime ministers, both well-known internationally, to come and talk about a philosophical book and polemicize about it. On the other hand, nowhere in the world would serious people speak publicly about a book which they obviously havent read. Did you see how embarrassed Fukuyama looked?

Indeed, neither Peres, nor, in particular, Netanyahu, addressed the important part of Fukuyamas analysis. His thesis had an empirical dimension, which was proved wrong. Around the time of his visit, the democracy indices, such as those measured by the American democracy watchdog Freedom House, started to indicate that a global recession of liberal democracy was underway. That tendency has only become stronger in recent years.

But Fukuyama didnt only address a historical reality at a given moment; his argument was also based on political imagination and how it mobilizes people. In that regard he was less mistaken. The liberal model has indeed weakened, but no alternative model has arisen, certainly not in global terms. Despite demands for reforms of various sorts, there is at present no new ideology or vision for regime, society and individuals parallel to communism in its day, for example in whose name masses of people are taking to the streets against democracy, against human rights and against capitalism (certainly not in its restrained form). It is not as if we see people demonstrating in the town square in favor of authoritarianism as an ideology, or urging the government to reduce their rights as individuals.

What we do see, rather, is primarily the erosion of the existing liberal model, for a variety of reasons (inequality, loss of community identity, migration, terrorism and more). We do not see political eros an energy, a passion around a model that creates a better future. Neither nationalism nor religion and tradition constitute a new and sweeping alternative; they are, rather, a replay of faith systems that proved disappointing in the past hence their limited strength.

In 2004, when Netanyahu stood on the stage at Tel Aviv University, it wasnt yet clear that he would become a key player, at the world level, in the conceptual vacuum that was emerging with the recession of the liberal-democratic model. It was equally impossible to know that he would be among those who would try to exploit that vacuum in order to transform democracy into a faade, behind which in fact exists a regime with soft authoritarian characteristics. That regime sanctifies one goal above all: power.

Immunity no matter what

For years, the prime minister has hardly spoken about the state of the nation and about the challenges it faces at least not in Israel, not to its citizens. This highly articulate person confines himself largely to calculated messages on Facebook, tweets and relatively brief statements in internal Likud meetings. Until his proposal late in the recent election campaign to engage in a debate with Benny Gantz, he had refrained for a decade from confronting his rivals head-on, and he has been stingy with press conferences. He was careful to be interviewed only by outlets convenient to him, particularly ahead of elections, and was apprehensive about appearing in the central media outlets, which for him constitute a dangerous realm rife with potential pitfalls.

The surprising television interview the premier gave to journalist Keren Marciano last March continues to haunt him, regarding the issue of parliamentary immunity against indictment: He denied then the possibility that he would seek such immunity from the Knesset, although he did just that later in the year and thus demonstrated his lack of credibility. Whereas his friend, U.S. President Donald Trump, talks for hours on end without choosing his words, Netanyahu adopts the opposite approach: making a conscientious effort to control his words and messages, avoiding an open dialogue with ordinary citizens. The absence of a policy platform in Likud is also consistent with this approach, which holds that words can constitute a danger, a limitation on power and its elasticity.

Netanyahus growing flight from certain uses of language raises a fundamental question: Does he have, or has he ever had, basic beliefs? A case in point is journalist Amit Segals fascinating series on Channel 12, Yemei Binyamin (Days of Benjamin), in which a lively, multi-participant debate was held on the question of whether Netanyahu believes in Greater Israel that is, incorporating the entire West Bank into sovereign Israel. Was his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, merely a tactical device that didnt reflect a true intention to forgo territories? Or could it be that the Wye agreement and the Hebron agreement at the end of the 1990s, by means of which he committed to continuing implementation of the withdrawals required of Israel by the Oslo Accords, show that his only considerations are his and his partys political survival?

Its the same with economic issues, the relationship between religion and state, the status of the High Court of Justice in fact, on almost every subject, Netanyahu can be interpreted in several different ways: ambiguity is his middle name. But in regard to one supreme goal, he is not in the least ambiguous, and his flexibility on other issues serves this. Surprisingly, that goal is not getting the attention it deserves.

The accumulation of power in its various forms was always a goal of Zionist ideology (as it was in other countries). Leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky understood that well. But in their rhetoric, power was to be wielded in order to fulfill other values of the Jewish peoples state. The components of a normative worldview, in this context, include, for Ben-Gurion, a social-democratic, republican society founded on solidarity, one that would be, a light unto the nations; and, according to Jabotinsky, a democratic state (behind an iron wall) based on individual rights and equal citizenship, including a recognition of the collective rights of the minority. The conceptual revolution of the past decade, of which Netanyahu is the principal fomenter and its embodiment, maintains that the power of the nation-state has for the first time become the primary and organizing goal of the whole; it stands on its own and is no longer part of a future vision of human goodness.

The thrust for power has made inroads all across life in Israel, so its perhaps only fitting that it also receives a dual expression in the shaping of the most important law promulgated in the Netanyahu era a Basic Law that defines the character of the state itself. On the one hand, the 2018 Nation-State Law enshrines the absolute ownership of the Jews over the state, and hence proclaims their superiority vis--vis the Arab citizens in the country. On the other hand, this law does not restrict the content of Jewish nationalism by way of values beyond it (with the exception of land settlement). Such a normative limitation of nationalism, as well as a future moral vision, existed in the Declaration of Independence, with its well-known commitment to civil and political equality of individual rights, as well as to freedom, justice and peace in the spirit of the prophets of Israel. The frightening meaning of the Nation-State Law, in contrast, is that it renders nationalism autonomous of both the Jewish and liberal universes of values, and forsakes any desire to shape the future in these terms. It cultivates a collective consciousness rife with a sense of power, one unshackled by anything that lies beyond it and this precisely in an era in which the state, as an institution that serves the potent nation, has become much more formidable than ever before.

To a certain degree, choosing the path of power is a response to the Jewish exilic past. In his 1997 book Rubber Bullets, the late political theorist Yaron Ezrahi argued that in Israel, the craving for power stems not only from the conflictual circumstances in which the state exists that is, by force of reality but also from the collective memory of a people that for the most of its history was a helpless, humiliated victim, and now wants to ensure that it will never be vulnerable again in any situation, even if this entails shutting its eyes to the suffering of others because of its own deeds. Part of Netanyahus political art lies in his ability to evoke that formative, traumatic memory, which is one of the main things that Menachem Mendel from the shtetl and Saadia from the Moroccan mellah have in common. He encourages the fusion of the historical experience of fear with the present-day anxieties of life in the brutal Middle East, and sells himself as the only figure who can fulfill the collective fantasies of Israelis for immunity under any condition.

Vertices of strength

One of the rare occasions in which Netanyahu spoke more comprehensively about his worldview was the conference of the business newspaper Globes, held in Jerusalem in December 2018. It was semi-formal, unpolished, but still an exceptional opportunity to understand Netanyahus worldview.

He began by asserting the primary insight that guides him. The weak do not survive, he said (echoing Jabotinskys well-known essay, Man is wolf to man). Nations find the strength to grow and develop, or they disappear. An ancient people like the Jews needs to learn from other ancient peoples who maintained continuity over time and whose survival is the key to their strength and their growth: for example, China and India. For Netanyahu, political action, certainly in the Middle East, must focus on one supreme goal: a constant cultivation of power in its full range. We are forging three tremendous dimensions of power, he said, and then enumerated: Military power, economic power and diplomatic power. In other words, power as a defensive and offensive ability through the use of violence; power as the accumulation of riches, assets and knowledge; and power as the ability to influence and shape actions of others.

The most important of these is military power, Netanyahu said the same point he has made on other occasions because without it, life itself would be unfeasible. Warplanes, submarines, a superb intelligence community, cyberwarfare capabilities and so forth are its foundations. Afterward comes economic power and economic growth, underlying which are a free market, privatization, competition, entrepreneurship, reduction of taxes and diminishment of regulation. Israeli technology, which focuses on the world of computers, on artificial intelligence and on big-data processing, is in the forefront of this policy, particularly through large companies and corporations. In third place is diplomatic power, manifested in strategic military alliances and in economic cooperation, including ties with countries in Africa, Asia and South America, and increasingly also with Arab states. This global influence and sway, he emphasized, derives primarily from the first two elements, and in fact the three nourish each other and constitute a single totality.

Toward the end of his speech at the conference, he was interviewed by Globes publisher Alona Bar-On. In reply to her question about the status of Israels Arab citizens, he said, We are currently fomenting something tremendous. What you see here, the tremendous revolution that minuscule Israel is becoming a rising world power, bursting out, forging ties with everyone and able to bring all our citizens Jews and non-Jews into this process. That is my vision, and I believe that in the end we will unite around this vision.

Indeed, as part of the attempt to build up Israeli power, Netanyahu and his successive governments have made a significant effort to integrate the Arab population at both the economic-productive and individual levels, while at the same time excluding them from partnership as a community with a distinct identity and inciting against them at the civil and political levels. Most recently, this includes a new threat to change the countrys border in the central Triangle area and thereby deprive many Arabs of their citizenship.

Netanyahus remarks at the Globes conference about the essence of his policy as augmenting power was not a one-time event: It is his worldview. Only recently, in a December 25 interview with the popular Army Radio, ahead of the Likud leadership contest, he listed Israels economic achievements and added, Israel has never been stronger, neither economically, nor in security, nor diplomatically, and that did not happen by chance. It happened because I am leading the country on a path of power. The premier also boasts that Israel under his leadership has become a power.

It is undeniable that Netanyahu and the governments hes headed have chalked up significant achievements in all three aspects of the strength he is referring to. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, from his perspective, is Trumps peace plan. It is based on the existing reality in the West Bank, which was forged under the auspices of a military regime. The plan assumes a priori that at the end of the process the Palestinians will accept Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, the rejection of the right of return, Israels status as a Jewish state, Hamas disarmament and also their own hollow sovereignty.

But the most blatant translation of the existing relations of power into the shaping of the American plan lies in the fact that it makes possible unilateral annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, without the signing of a peace treaty and without dependence on Palestinian consent. In the old world of Oslo, there was still talk of a peace agreement in terms of justice and (limited) fairness, of the memory of past injustices and responsibility for rectifying them, of the dignity of both sides and an absence of humiliation, of recognition of the interests of each people as it defines them itself, and of an avoidance of one-sided measures. In the Trump-Netanyahu plan, by contrast, all the cruelty of the existing situation as understood solely from the perspective of relations of power and dominance is presented in all its intensity. Reciting past narratives about the conflict is unproductive, the plan states theres no point rehashing narratives about who did what to whom and why.

The Trump blueprint is indeed a fresh start. It completely transforms the language and the terms in which we think about a solution to the conflict: In place of a peace agreement that is understood as a dialogue between parties that respect each other and with hard work strive to create long-term mutual trust an arrangement is proposed in which one dominant side shapes the other side in its own image and solely according to its interests and needs.

Israelis disagree about Netanyahus actual achievements or their absence. But the important issue here is the worldview that he is imparting and that some of his followers are promoting. We can assume that its not by chance that when he talks about the sources of Israels power, he doesnt mention democracy. That is nothing less than astonishing. From Pericles in Athens to Churchill in World War II, the democratic regime and the free way of life were considered the countrys most crucial source of power. For Netanyahu, however, the states resilience and status are due primarily to the fact that he personally is leading Israel on a path of power and that he is safeguarding life itself with his exceptional abilities and by the might of his hand.

What governance conceals

If human reality is grasped through the prism of power, its only natural for that notion to shape political life not only in foreign relations, but also domestically as well. In the Netanyahu era, a link that did not previously exist in Israel has been created: the imperative of safeguarding the states strength has been linked to the necessity of promoting the personal power of the leader, and the latter has been linked to the notion of efficient governance and dominance of the executive branch.

As far back as ancient Athens, democracy was depicted by its detractors as a regime that encourages factionalism, inefficiency and rule wielded by amateurs who lack experience or talent. This viewpoint occasionally led to coups in a city-state and to the adoption of a tyrannical, one-man regime. In our era, there are very few coups of that kind, but there are attempts to void democracy of most of its content. The result is the emergence of hybrid regimes, in which democracy is maintained as a faade that allows power to be wielded in practice by an authoritarian leader who uses the law and institutions to promote his or her personal sway.

Emergency situations, certainly if theyre chronic, provide a good excuse for leaders to create a regime of this kind. In Israel of 2020, journalists arent thrown into jail the way they are in Turkey, universities arent shut down as happens in Hungary, and the election process itself remains relatively untainted but the mistrust of and contempt for democracy run deep. For example, a great many parties have adopted the principle of concentrating power in the hands of a single leader, and lack internal democracy and elections. As a result, there arent 120 independent MKs in Israel (as it is, the Knesset is a small parliament relative to the size of the population); instead, the whole system is controlled by a few individuals, and to justify their status, a culture of personality cult is taking root, something that demeans both the MKs and the public.

Likud does have internal elections, but its well-known DNA, as the norms by which it operates are often called, actually exist from the end of the Menachem Begin era until the second Netanyahu era) means that the leaders status is not at risk.

In fact, in adopting power as the dominant and organizing principle, the prime minister is completely circumventing democratic politics, which is based on discussion, on an exchange of views and of course on disputes over ideas both within the parties and outside them. Citizens can disagree over whether to view those who came from Eritrea to Israel as labor migrants or as refugees entitled to protection, and over whether to expand the welfare state or shrink it. But Netanyahu hardly engages in such concrete issues of policy: He focuses on the necessity of extending the states power and what sort of political debate can take place about such an overarching goal when it is presented as stemming from the need to preserve citizens very existence?

Whereas Netanyahus rhetoric is, on the one hand, engaged in incitement against the left and the elites, on the other hand, it hammers into the collective consciousness an interest that is seemingly shared by the entire public an interest we can call existential and pre-political which places him outside and above every concrete political dispute: In a different league. Below, in the dregs of democracy, there are still people who are occupied with shifting ideological disputes, whereas the prime minister without a platform is the only one who has the ability to identify the deep and stable will of the entire nation and all of its segments: power for the sake of survival. And with such a reduction and flattening of democratic politics, who really needs a house of representatives that possesses significance and importance of its own? The prime minister doesnt even need the party as a mediator and as a pluralistic body he is in direct communication with the public via Facebook.

This is also the most important context in which the discourse about governance in Israel arose by the right, in recent years a discourse that was not necessarily intended to solve the problems of the countrys citizens by improving effectiveness. (Whats the connection between governance and the unwillingness of leaders to confront frequent rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, overcrowding in hospitals, traffic jams and air pollution?) Rather, the main purpose of this discourse is to buttress the standing of a muscular executive branch vis--vis the legislative branch and especially the judicial branch; it seeks to justify the concentration of power in the hands of the government and the person who heads it.

Absolute supremacy

In Israel, a discussion about power cannot take place in disassociation from the military regime in the West Bank (which operates at different levels of involvement in Palestinians lives). If the backsliding of democracy in Israel is part of a global phenomenon, it also has very local causes. The military regime running the occupation has existed for 53 years, and most Israelis were born into it. It exists adjacent to Israel and in practice as part of the country. The Palestinians in the territories are subordinate to it, but so are the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live there (at least as long as the settlements havent been formally annexed to Israel), and it is maintained by successive generations of soldiers. Within the Israeli elite are senior figures who were responsible over many years for managing the regime, which has proven to be highly effective as a model for controlling a population. Its not surprising, then, that the rationale of that regime has penetrated that of Israel proper, in a process that runs deeper than political views of one sort or another.

Although a military regime that is formed after an occupation of a foreign territory is subject to international law, it embodies a type of primary sovereignty in which there is no separation of branches and power has one center only. In this regime, there is dominance of the executive branch: It is the very embodiment of unhindered governance. The supreme law in this administration is promulgated by the military commander in the form of generals orders, and the military judges, though they do not operate according to orders from their superiors, do act to ensure the rulers preservation and security. The act of governing is thus carried out on the basis of a centralist conception of sovereignty as embodied in one person (the military commander responsible for the territory); in silence and without any need for a public sphere, for explanation or discussion; by promulgation of laws (orders) that serve above all the continuity and stability of the regime, not necessarily the needs of the residents; and with the commander-sovereigns absolute supremacy over those who are subject to his authority, as though they were different types of human beings.

For many years, Israeli democracy succeeded in separating this method of military rule, which is based wholly on the use of power (military, in this case), from developments inside Israel itself but apparently no longer. It would be mainly the representatives of the Israeli citizens who are subordinate to the military regime and know it first-hand the various settlers parties who would adopt elements of this regime model and rationale, contribute to their integration into Israeli democracy, and who would help Netanyahu justify his vision of himself as the authentic embodiment of Israeli sovereignty.

Sanctifying strength, scorning democracy

An increasing focus on the crucial role of power in politics has yet another important advantage for the criminally accused Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to face trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and acceptance of bribes beginning March 17. Contemplating political life in terms of power and strength alone makes it possible for him to belittle the gravity of the offenses hes charged with.

Institutions and norms, which are the fruit of generations of work, place restraints on those who rule; in a functioning democracy, there is an attempt to decentralize power and authority and to critique them. Netanyahus attacks on the institution of the press and his desire to control media outlets like Walla News are part of his attempt to avoid public critiques. Whereas the media is external and independent, Netanyahu has even called into question the integrity and motivations of actors and institutions representing part of the state. Indeed, he has gone so far as to allege that the police and the state prosecution have attempted to foment a governmental coup against him, as though he were an outsider and not a person who has embodied the state establishment for decades and who achieved his status through it. Instead of the prime minister acting according to the public-institutional interest, which of course includes respecting the Israeli legal and judicial system, he began defining this interest as mandating first and foremost his continued rule.

Even more depressing is the damage he is causing to the public ethic: The prime minister is the No. 1 educator in the country, a subject of emulation and a figure who influences our childrens concept of a desirable personality. Although anyone familiar with the Bible doesnt expect a leader to be a saint, the text of the indictment obligatory reading for every citizen of Israel does not paint a picture of a person who tripped up once, exceptionally. Rather, the picture that emerges is of a serial liar who assails even facts, an uninhibited hedonist whose sense of entitlement puts him above the law, a person who is driven by a notion of whats good for him and who uses the states resources as though they were his personal property. Its difficult to quantify the long-term damage that Netanyahu has caused to Israels ethical infrastructure: Can a democratic society, one based on mutual trust and faith in peoples ability for self-rule, be based on values like these?

Its doubtful that Netanyahus deeds would have taken place with the brazenness that characterizes them without the broader separation between power and ethics in Israel, one that gradually formed primarily in the wake of the occupation. If the human condition is by its nature a relentless struggle for survival between the weak and the strong as Netanyahu professes, and if states are measured by their concrete strength and not by the excellence of the character and virtues of their citizens then an ethical discussion in public life becomes a luxury. On the one hand, how can one complain about the plunder of land, the prevention of freedom of movement, the unjustified death of a demonstrator, the deprivation of the right to self-determination and more, if the way of the world is to have conquerors and conquered? On the other hand, why criticize a prime minister for his personal criminal offenses and his lack of brakes if he is a magician when it comes to wielding the power and influence needed to preserve the occupation, promote annexation in the West Bank and bolster Israels international standing? Reality, as noted, cannot be judged in moral terms of good and evil, of justice and wrongdoing, but according to the implementation or non-implementation of power politics at the national and personal levels.

The path to this line of thought in modernity was carved out by Friedrich Nietzsche. Hand in hand with our recognition of the death of God, he said, we must also liberate ourselves from the Judeo-Christian perception of the good and the just vs. evil and sin. Nietzsche was particularly critical of the slave morality in that tradition, which openly advocates empathy for the other, modesty, decency, a vigilant conscience, a sense of guilt and the encouragement of atonement and the like. That morality must be rejected, he maintained, because man is fundamentally driven by a desire for power, an urge to shape himself and the world around him, including his moral codes. The innermost essence of being is will to power, Nietzsche says, and, It is part of the concept of the living that it must grow that it must extend its power. Nietzsche does not usually draw a connection between power and ruling over others, nor does he identify it with violence. Power in his eyes requires primarily an ability to sublimate, meaning that a person translates natural energy and free will into an ability to act in the world and to shape himself creatively and authentically.

But at times Nietzsche attributes a darker import to the will to power. For example, in his book The Will to Power (a controversial work), as it was edited by his sister after his death), he writes, At least a people might just as well designate as a right its need to conquer, its lust for power, whether by means of arms or by trade, commerce and colonization the right to growth, perhaps. A society that definitely and instinctively gives up war and conquest is in decline: It is ripe for democracy and the rule of shopkeepers. The sanctity of the power of a nation (not necessarily the German nation) thus involves not only legitimization to seize control of others and of their land, but also entails scorn for democracy and liberalism, which introduce anti-bellicose tendencies and universal elements into the political culture.

Nietzsche influenced many and diverse thinkers and writers of early Zionism, among them Martin Buber, Yosef Haim Brenner, the writer Gershon Shofman and Uri Nissan Gnessin. They were drawn to the radicalism, the individualism and the freedom from conventions they found in him. More than anyone else, Nietzsche influenced the writer Micha Josef Berdyczewski (the favorite author of the young Ben-Gurion). Whereas Ahad Haam spoke about a strict Jewish national morality that included reluctance to use violence, Berdyczewski wrote, in the spirit of Nietzsche, that conquest of the land is certainly a national endeavor and it also rests on a certain national morality, but it stands in major conflict with human morality. The core of national morality is simple: self-love of the people .... In contrast, the purist national morality of Ahad Haam, Berdyczewski added, is founded on the immorality of conquering lands, expanding their borders, doing away with the faltering and inheriting their place.

These intellectual connections between Nietzsche and Zionist figures are too complex to be delineated here. They are well described and analyzed by David Ohana in his Hebrew-language book Zarathustra in Jerusalem, which includes a discussion of Nietzsches influence on the Revisionist movement as well as on the pre-state Lehi organization and on one of its members, the thinker Israel Eldad, Nietzsches translator into Hebrew. Suffice it say here that the concept of power that the German philosopher articulated intertwined well with the rebellion of some Zionists against the dominance of the discourse of commandment and transgression, of good and evil in Judaism, and with the understanding that Zionism would succeed only if it recognized that relations between nations are founded (also) on force.

Thus, until recently, the worship and role of power in Israeli politics remained constrained by various faith systems socialism, liberalism, the Jewish tradition and, some would say, even currents in religious Zionism. However, these limiting ideologies and ideas are increasingly crumbling in Israel. The discourse of power trickled down steadily, and in order to confront Netanyahu, three former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff gathered together at the head of one slate in the hope that their reservoirs of symbolic power would suffice to defeat him; their slate, it should be noted, is composed of three parties, none of which has free internal elections. The legacy of the Netanyahu era is above all the transformation of power into an end in and of itself, and into an autonomous entity. Israeli democracy will be coping the implications of this legacy long after he is gone.

Eyal Chowers teaches political philosophy at Tel Aviv University. His book The Political Philosophy of Zionism: Trading Jewish Words for a Hebraic Land, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.

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Netanyahu's worldview? All means sanctify the pursuit of power - Haaretz

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March 8th, 2020 at 10:45 am

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