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December 28, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1615

The Water-for-Energy Deal Between Jordan And Israel: A Jordanian Interest Amid Popular Opposition

December 28, 2021 | By Z. Harel*
Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1615

Introduction

On November 22, 2021, on the periphery of the Expo in Dubai, Jordan, Israel and the UAE signed a letter of intent for cooperation in the spheres of solar energy and water desalination as part of combating climate change. According to the declaration – which was signed by Jordanian Water Minister Muhammad Al-Najjar, Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar and Emirati Food and Water Security Minister Maryam Bint Muhammad Al-Mahiri, in the presence of U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry – an Emirati company will construct a solar power plant in Jordan that will export 600 MW of power to Israel, while Israel will supply Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water to alleviate its severe water shortage.[1] The emerging agreement has therefore been dubbed the "Water-for-Energy deal."

The Jordanian public was surprised to learn about the emerging deal from reports in the Israeli and global media. The Jordanian media reported on it only after the signing of the letter of intent. Moreover, only a few hours before the signing ceremony, Jordan's State Minister for Media Affairs and government spokesman Faisal Al-Shboul gave a radio interview in which he denied the reports in Israel and the world about a trilateral agreement and said that the sides were only holding consultations.[2]

The news about the deal led to a wave of anger in Jordan, sparking protests on the streets and drawing criticism from politicians and public figures, as well as on social media and in the press. The arrest of people for protesting against the deal infuriated the public even further.  The opponents of the deal described it as another expression of normalization with Israel and even called it "treason" and a threat to the kingdom's interests and national security, and  warned against making Jordan's water supply dependent on the "hostile entity" Israel. They also called it an implementation of the economic component of the so-called Deal of the Century, the plan promoted by the Trump administration as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,[3] which Jordan strongly opposed.[4]

It should be noted that the protest against the water-for-energy deal comes on top of ongoing protests against Jordan's importation of natural gas from Israel, which have not abated for years. According to this deal – signed in 2016 between Jordan's National Electric Power Company and Noble Energy, the operator of Israel's Leviathan offshore gas field – Jordan will be provided with gas from this field over a period of 15 years. The public protest against this deal, which began even prior to its signing, is voiced by many political and tribal figures and forces in Jordan, including the Muslim Brotherhood and various MPs, who oppose any cooperation with the "hostile" state of Israel.[5]

In response to the widespread protests against the water-for-energy deal, Jordanian officials  downplayed the significance of the letter of intent and stressed that it is non-binding. At the same time they emphasized Jordan's severe water shortage and clarified that the deal would not prevent the kingdom from seeking alternative solutions to the water crisis, such as the national project for digging a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and building a desalination plant. Even the Jordanian king implicitly alluded to the issue, saying that "the interest of the homeland supersedes all else."

At the same time, articles reflecting the position of the regime, such as an editorial in the government daily Al-Rai and an article by a former government spokesman Muhammad Al-Mu'mani, defended the deal and criticized the populistic discourse against it. They stressed its advantages, noting that it serves Jordan's interest and is in fact vital in light of the severe water crisis in the country. They also emphasized that Jordan would continue to uphold the Palestinian cause, which it likewise regards as a supreme national interest.

Cartoon in Jordanian daily: The water deal with Israel is a trap (Al-Ghad, Jordan, November 26, 2021)

This report reviews the protest in Jordan against the emerging water-for-energy deal with Israel, and the attempts of elements in the establishment to thwart it.

Opponents Of The Deal: Normalization With Israel Is Treason And A Threat To National Security; Water-For-Energy Is An Implementation Of The "Deal Of The Century"

Among the Jordanian politicians who opposed the deal was MP Khalil 'Attiya, who took to Facebook and accused the government of deliberately creating the water crisis, for instance by blocking wells and emptying dams, "in order to pass the cursed energy and water deal" with Israel.[6] Former MP Rula Al-Farra warned that signing of the letter of intent was tantamount to "ratifying the Deal of the Century in a subtle and implicit manner, so as to impose political solutions on Jordan and Palestine against the will of their peoples."[7]

Jordan's largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), issued a statement against the deal, which said: "We stress our firm position against normalization with the Zionist entity that commits the worst kinds of terror against our people and our brothers in occupied Palestine… The MB movement condemns and opposes placing [Jordan's] vital and strategic water and energy sectors in the hands of a hostile entity that does not honor agreements and [international] conventions, [an act] that will expose Jordan's national security to great danger. [Moreover,] any normalization with the occupying entity harms the struggle of the Palestinian people to liberate its land from this usurping colonialist entity… This entity will remain a usurping enemy, which can be addressed in only one language: the language of resistance and jihad until every inch of occupied Palestine is liberated…"[8]

Murad 'Adaileh, secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Jordanian MB, called the deal "treason against the blood that the [Jordanian] Arab army spilled in Jerusalem and Palestine in defense of Jordan."[9] He too claimed that the Jordanian government, which had opposed the Deal of the Century, was now implementing it in practice.[10] He added: "If our brothers in the UAE want to help the Jordanian people to obtain water, why not support the construction of a desalination plant on the Red Sea?"[11]

On December 15, 2021, following several postponements, the Jordanian parliament held a debate on the water-for-energy deal in the presence of Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh and several of his ministers. The overwhelming majority of MPs firmly rejected the letter of intent and all expressions of normalization with Israel, condemned the government for hiding its plan to sign the letter and demanded that it seek other solutions to the water crisis. They even threatened to hold a vote of no confidence in the government.[12]  Circassian Jordanian MP 'Adnan Mashoqah said during the parliament debate that the deal would gravely undermine Jordan's sovereignty, "[take money] out of Jordanian pockets to support the economy of the occupation" and  constitute a de-facto implementation of the Deal of the Century.[13] MP Firas Al-'Ajarmeh, of the People's Bloc, likewise said that the water-for-energy deal was political and an outcome of the Deal of the Century. He claimed that, if the government started raising funds for the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project it would be able to raise the money in a single day from Jordanians who oppose the deal with Israel.[14] MP Ahmad Al-Qatawneh of the MB said that those who signed the deal were "traitors against Allah, the homeland and the martyrs."[15]

Opposition to the deal was also expressed on social media. Shortly after the news broke about the signing of the letter of intent, the "normalization is treason" hashtag went viral among Jordanian social media users.[16] Samir Mashhour, a human rights activist from 'Aqaba and a member of the Jordanian Engineers Association, tweeted a photo of the signing ceremony in Dubai, with the message: "Shame on everyone who desecrated the Jordanian flag and took part in this new treason against its sovereignty and national security and against the martyred and imprisoned Jordanians and Palestinians. Placing the keys to [our] water [sector] in Israel's hands, after the keys to the energy sector have already been placed in its hands [by signing the 2016 gas agreement], is an act of treason that only a corrupt agent of colonialism and its apparatuses would commit. #NormalizationIsTreason."[17]

Samir Mashhour's tweet

MB political activist Khaled Al-Juhani tweeted: "The water [Jordan will import from Israel] will not extinguish the desire for vengeance [against Israel] or wash away the blood of the martyrs. The rage of those who sacrificed and waged jihad will not be assuaged by humiliating deals with the murderer. Allah's promise that the occupation will end will eventually be fulfilled. #NormalizationIsTreason."[18]

A photo of a Jordanian boy named Suka peeing on an Israeli flag and on photos of several Israeli leaders went viral among Jordanians on social media under the hashtag "Suka represents me."[19] 


Photo of the boy Suka that went viral on social media

Arrest Of Activists Demonstrating Against The Deal Exacerbates The Protest

The rage over the deal soon spilled out into the streets. On November 23, one day after the signing of the letter of intent, spontaneous protests broke out in several parts of Jordan and in some Jordanian universities. The security forces arrested a number of young activists who had called to protests against the deal in front of the Interior Ministry in Amman. The governor of Amman ordered the arrest of 14 additional activists who had slammed the deal and called for protests against it.[20] These arrests only prompted further protests. They also drew criticism from politicians, who claimed that they contravened the kingdom's efforts to enact political reforms aimed inter alia at empowering young people and encouraging their participation in politics.[21]

On November 26, a video was circulated on social media in which Sheikh Ahmad Al-Quraishat from 'Ajloun in northern Jordan addressed the king, stating that one of the reasons for "the deteriorating situation in the country" is that "the homeland's resources are being sold and normalization agreements with the Zionist enemy are being signed one after the other." He condemned the arrest of the activists, saying that the authorities were ignoring the opinion of the majority in the country, and warned against "an all-out popular uprising."[22]

On November 26, the first Friday after the signing of the letter of intent, the Jordanian MB and other political forces held a large-scale protest rally in Amman after the prayers in the mosques. It was attended by thousands, who called on the government to revoke the agreement and find an alternative solution to the water crisis in the country. They also demanded the release of the detained activists and chanted slogans against Israel and against normalization, including "we do not want gas or water, we want honor and liberty," "normalization is treason," "revoke the Wadi Araba Agreement [i.e., the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan]" and "[better] death than humiliation."[23] Protests were also held in various parts of the kingdom, including in Al-Zarqa, Irbid, Ma'an and Karak.[24]

On the following Friday (December 3), protests were again held after the mosque prayers. The MB organized a protest in Al-Baqa'a, Jordan's largest Palestinian refugee camp, at which participants stressed that "resistance is the only way to liberate Palestine and expel the occupation," and chanted: "Raise your voice so it is heard in Palestine, my people are returning there by the million. Inform Tel Aviv so that the foreigner will leave. No embassies and no ambassadors, you [Jewish] swine!"[25]


Mass protest in Amman on November 26, 2021. The sign says: "No normalization with the Zionist enemy" (Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, November 26, 2021)

Articles In Jordanian Press: The Deal Threatens Jordan's Sovereignty And Identity, Defies All Logic

Alongside the public protests, opposition to the deal with Israel and to normalization was also expressed in the Jordanian press. On November 22, a few hours after the signing of the letter of intent, journalist Hazem 'Ayyad slammed the deal in his column on assabeel.net, the online daily of the Jordanian MB. Writing under the headline "The Letter of Intent Signed at the [Dubai] Expo – A Threat To Sovereignty and a Prize for the Occupation," he stated: "There are many possible solutions to the water shortage that are feasible, cheaper and do not threaten Jordan's sovereignty, security, public order and stability. [Unlike the deal with Israel,] these solutions do not involve unbelievable penalty clauses and will not [result in] certain political and economic blackmail. What has happened [i.e., the deal] and will happen [i.e., its implementation] is a disaster that must be averted, for it is a prize for the occupation and a grave threat to [our] sovereignty and independence."[26]

Columnist Ibrahim 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Qaisi wrote on November 28 in his column in the daily Al-Dustour: "Whenever we compare the position of the Jordanian people on the Zionist occupation to the position of other Arab peoples, we find that the Jordanians are the greatest opponents of this hated occupation. Jordanians have a thousand reasons to oppose any kind of contact with the Zionists, and they regard Israel as an occupying and criminal state to this day. Even if all the Arabs recognize it, the Jordanians will find it difficult to do so, despite the existence of a peace agreement [between Jordan] and the usurping occupying entity…

"'No normalization with the criminal Zionist entity' – for the Jordanians this is not a slogan, but an existential motto. It is a major component of the Hashemite Jordanian identity. Any normalization [with Israel] today means forgoing the Hashemite Jordanian identity, whose uniqueness, importance and exceptionality stem from its honorable history and its position on Palestine, the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people…"[27] 

"Former MP Jamil Al-Nimri, also an Al-Dustour columnist, wondered how the deal with Israel would benefit Jordan, and likewise proposed alternative solutions to the water crisis, such as constructing a desalination plant in Aqaba. Hinting that the deal was prompted by external considerations, he wrote: "Let's put politics and normalization aside, and ask our water minister about the strategic economic and professional aspects. Because, in addition to the mystery surrounding this project and its details, it seems artificial and forced, and is outside the boundaries of Jordan's water and energy needs and plans… We seem to be facing a project that compels us to produce electricity we do not need, prevents us from obtaining the water we do need, and shackles us, on both counts, to the occupying entity – [a move] that defies all logic and every national and strategic interest. Let the water minister come and explain this to us!"[28]  

In Response To The Protests, Jordanian Officials  Downplay The Letter Of Intent, Stress The Need To Address The Water Crisis

In response to the widespread protest against the emerging deal with Israel, Jordanian officials tried to downplay the significance of the letter of intent and stressed that it is not binding for Jordan. At the same time, they noted the urgency of resolving the water crisis. One day after the signing of the letter of intent, Water and Irrigation Minister Muhammad Al-Najjar stated that it was "only an agreement between the sides to begin examining the profitability of the project," and added: "We will not sign any agreement without informing the House of Representatives, the Senate, the citizens, the press and the media." As for the failure to inform the public in advance about the letter of intent, he said that negotiations about it began only 24 hours before it was signed. The minister stressed that the letter of intent had nothing to do with the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and did not involve changing of any clauses of this treaty, and that the initiative for the deal had come from the Emirati company, which would implement it independently of any previous agreement.[29]

Al-Najjar's deputy, 'Omar Salama, also downplayed the significance of the letter of intent, saying it only initiated "a process of assessing the profitability [of the deal] in the course of 2022." He stressed that the letter did not have the technical or legal force of an agreement, and clarified that "this project stems from Jordan's need for permanent sources of water, a need that is steadily increasing due to the growth of the population and the growing demand [for water] in industry, agriculture and other sectors." He added that the water shortage in Jordan, which is one of the world's most water-poor countries, is growing from year to year, especially due to the presence of the refugees, which increases the pressure on infrastructures and services.[30]

In a November 27 interview on the BBC, Jordan's State Minister for Media Affairs and government spokesman Faisal Al-Shboul responded to the call to find alternatives to the water-for-energy deal with Israel. He said that, while looking into the feasibility of this Emirati project, Jordan will also continue to consider the project for digging the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal  and building a desalination plant in Aqaba. The cost of conducting water 350 kilometers from Aqaba to Amman is very high, he said, but this nevertheless remains a strategic Jordanian project that will be examined in the course of the coming year.[31]

In the heated parliamentary debate about the deal on December 15, Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh tried to defend the deal and rebut the claims of its opponents, saying that the government was not creating a dependence on anyone and was only fulfilling its national duty. He clarified: "We must all understand that the current water shortage is unprecedented and is threatening the quality of life of the coming generations, in the present and future." He too emphasized that the government was not abandoning the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal  project, and would protect Jordan's security and interests. He warned that Jordan would be literally parched if it did not hurry to implement every possible solution as part of a strategy for addressing the water crisis.[32] Several MPs clarified that they would vote for the deal for the sake of Jordan's national interest.[33] One of them, veteran MP Fawaz Al-Zou'bi, who voted in favor of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty in 1994, stated that Jordan's national interest was above any other consideration and that, for Jordan's sake, he would make a deal even with the devil.[34]

So far, Jordanian King 'Abdullah II has not explicitly addressed the issue of the water-for-energy deal, but following the heated parliamentary debate about it he apparently alluded to it implicitly. In a December 16 meeting with Jordanian senators he said that the government must clarify any issue that can spark rumors or be misunderstood, and stressed that "the interest of the homeland supersedes all else."[35]  

Jordanian Senator: The Deal Will Serve Jordan's Interests

Another way in which the Jordanian establishment responded to the protests is by publishing articles that stressed the benefits of the deal, the authorities' commitment to safeguarding Jordan's interests while also meeting its vital needs, as well as Jordan's ongoing commitment to the Palestinian cause. On November 22, on the eve of the signing of the letter of intent, Jordanian Senator Muhammad Hussein Mu'mini, a former state minister of media affairs and former government spokesman, defended the deal in his column in the daily Al-Ghad. He wrote: "Reliable reports in the global [media] indicate that Jordan, the UAE and Israel will sign a large-scale deal involving energy and water… one of the largest [of its kind]. This is a real implementation of the Complex Interdependence principle, which has long been considered the real guarantee for peace between Israel and its neighbors. This principle was the basis for the European common market that brought Europe peace and stability after two deadly world wars. Furthermore, the [water-for-energy] project embodies and implements the [political] vision and rationale of Jordan, which has always insisted on win-win [scenarios that bring] mutual benefit, while firmly opposing zero-sum games [in which only one side benefits]…

"The water and energy project funded by the UAE implements the principle of interdependence. It benefits all the relevant parties, serves their interests and meets some of their needs, without granting any of them an advantage [over the others] and without making any of them dependent on the others.

"It is unfortunate that no Jordanian or Israeli official is speaking clearly in favor of this project and [explaining] how it serves the interests of his country – because it does. This [silence] appears to be the result of Netanyahu's many years in office, during which a discourse of hatred and rejection prevailed, which opposes any cooperation, although [cooperation] should be natural in the post-peace era. [Jordanian] officials justify [their objection] to this issue, each with his own excuses – because in Jordan there is a [kind of] populism that rejects any rational interest[-based] discourse where Israel is concerned, even at the expense of the interest of the state. In Israel, [on the other hand], there is fear of the [political] right, which continues its extensive attacks on Jordan, on the local and global [levels].  

"There are plenty of [joint] projects between Arab states, [including] Jordan, and Israel. Countries do not sign [deals] and do not join these projects if they do not regard them as profitable. Jordan, for example, joined the project of exporting gas from Israel, which sparked popular opposition, in recognition of its economic benefits. Today, after gas prices have increased five-fold, the purchase of gas from Israel saves millions for [Jordan's] national economy.

"Countries join projects in the spheres of energy, water, agriculture and transportation when these projects serve their interests. This in no way contravenes Jordan's sovereign position on the two-state solution and its demand to let the Palestinian people have their state, [in an act of] belated justice. On the contrary, the interdependence [created by the deal] will increase the chances of this happening."[36]

Al-Rai Editorial: Jordan Is Committed To Meeting Its Vital Needs, But Will Not Abandon The Palestinian Cause

The November 24 editorial of the state daily Al-Rai, titled "Jordan Will Remain the Voice of Palestine, of the Nation and of Truth," said: "Jordan, the UAE and Israel signed a letter of intent according to which they will consider launching a joint project in the fields of energy and water… When the news about the letter of intent broke, a few [voices] tried to attack Jordan, calling this normalization. Their voices grew shrill and they [spread] their populist emotional discourse that completely ignores the facts and [Jordan's] interests…

"The facts are the Jordan is a water-poor country, for geographical reasons… It embraced and continues to embrace all Arabs, helps the downtrodden and shelters the needy and the indigent. It has never neglected its national duty, and it often bears the brunt of political developments in the neighboring [countries].  Jordan has remained committed to the Arabs' main [cause], the Palestinian cause, and has promoted it more than all other Arabs. It has remained the prominent champion [of this cause] in the world, placing it on the international agenda despite all the attempts to eliminate it. His Majesty King 'Abdullah II continues to be the prominent champion of the [Palestinian] cause and the Palestinian people, upholding the two-state solution, as part of which Jerusalem will be the capital of a viable Palestinian state…The gas deal signed with the Noble Energy company [for exporting gas from Israel] did not prevent His Majesty from taking a firm pro-Palestinian stance and from being the only [Arab leader] to do so.

"Jordan understands that its vital and central role is crucial for our Palestinian brothers, just as it is crucial for Jordan's own existence... It is also committed to realizing its vital interests, and the water crisis is at the top of its strategic national agenda. This [crisis], which has long been troubling us, stems from a number of reasons, some of which have to do with climate and others with politics. It must be addressed on the diplomatic level, far from the conflicts, narrow interests and shrill voices of those who wish to lead the domestic political game at this crucial juncture that will affect Jordan's political character for decades to come.[37]

"Whoever raises his voice now [against the water-for-energy deal], and who previously attacked the gas deal with Noble Energy, refuses to acknowledge that this [gas] deal saved Jordan some two billion dinars [just] since the beginning of the current year, due to the rise in global gas prices. The deal helped ensure Jordan's power supply and even helped it to become a regional power hub. There is no better evidence of this than the deals Jordan signed for supplying power to Lebanon and Iraq.

"The government is committed to the letter of intent [it signed with Israel], as part of which it will assess the profitability of the joint project. The people's representatives [in parliament] will be the ones to decide [the issue], for the Jordanian constitution stipulates that the people are the source of the government's [authority]. So, when the time comes, all the parties will be able to perform their political role and [advance] their opinions. In Jordan we are not afraid to voice our positions or express our opinions, but we protect [the country] from those who seek to hijack it by raising their voices or trying make shows of strength. We must remember that the homeland is greater than all of us, and that we are prepared to lay down our lives for it. We must all think calmly while we still can and perform our role out of political awareness. We are against silencing people, but also against shrill voices.

"Jordan will continue to perform its usual [role] as the voice and the flag-bearer of the Palestinian cause. Nothing will keep it from voicing its clear position, and nothing will weaken this position…"[38]

Following the heated parliamentary debate on December 15, 'Alaa Al-Qarala, a columnist for the state daily Al-Rai, also defended the deal. Writing under the headline "Letter of Intent and Good Intentions," he stressed the need to meet Jordan's vital needs and resolve the water crisis. He added that the deal will cost Jordan nothing and that its economy will benefit from the construction of a solar power plant in its territory. He ended his column with the question: "If  you were thirsty in the desert and your bitterest enemy came along, carrying water, would you drink, or would you die?"[39]

 

*Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] This water will be provided in addition to the regular water supply from Israel to Jordan stipulated in the peace treaty between the two countries. Wam.ae, November 22, 2021.

[2] Albosala.com, November 22, 2021.

[3] "Knowledgeable" sources recently told the online daily Raialyoum.com that the water-for-energy deal was one of the regional economic initiatives avidly promoted by Trump's advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner at the June 2019 Manama conference, held ahead of the publication of the Deal of the Century. See Raialyoum.com, November 26, 2021.

[6] Facebook.com/Khalil.H.Atieh, November 22, 2021.

[7] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 24, 2021.

[8] Assabeel.net, November 22, 2021.

[9] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 24, 2021.

[10] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 24, 2021.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 30, 2021.

[12] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 16, 2021.

[13] Assabeel.net, December 15, 2021.

[14] Amonnews.net, December 15, 2021.

[15] Albosala.com, December 15, 2021.

[16] Albosala.com, December 15, 2021, November 22, 2021; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 23, 2021.

[17] Twitter.com/Sameermashhour, November 22, 2021.

[18] Twitter.com/KhaledEljuhani, November 22, 2021.

[19] Twitter.com/MahaOmari7, November 28, 2021; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 30, 2021.

[20] Sawaleif.com, November 23, 2021; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 24, 2021; assabeel.net, November 25, 2021.

[21] Raialyoum.com, December 1, 2021, November 29, 2021.

[22] Raialyoum.com, November 26, 2021.

[23] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 26, 2021.

[24] Assabeel.net, albosala.com, November 25, 2021; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 27, 2021.

[25] Raialyoum.com, December 4, 2021.

[26] Assabeel.net, November 22, 2021.

[27] Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 28, 2021.

[28] Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 28, 2021.

[29] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 24, 2021.

[30] Elaph.com, November 22, 2021.

[31] Hala.jo, November 27, 2021.

[32] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 16, 2021.

[33] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 16, 2021.

[34] Assabeel.net, December 15, 2021; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), December 16, 2021.

[35] Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 17, 2021.

[36] Al-Ghad (Jordan), November 22, 2021.

[37] The reference is to political reforms that are currently being promoted in Jordan.

[38] Al-Rai (Jordan), November 24, 2021.

[39] Al-Rai (Jordan), December 16, 2021.

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