'We Prevented Israel From Going to War': Outgoing Air Force Chief on Iran, Gaza and the Conflicts Ahead

Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel tells Haaretz about preparing for an attack on Iran, carrying out scores of airstrikes on Hezbollah and averting clashes with Russian jets in Syria ■ On Gaza, he says: 'We kill more terrorists and fewer civilians'

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Outgoing Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel in 2015.
Outgoing Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel in 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Few people wield as much influence on Israel’s strategic situation and on the degree of security the country’s citizens enjoy than the commander of the Israel Air Force. Israel’s air might, which in relatively quiet periods is exercised only fitfully and generally far from the eyes of the public, remains uppermost as the guarantee of the country’s security – second only to American diplomatic backing and military aid. This status is related to the professional quality of the IAF’s personnel, the ultra-expensive weapons systems it employs and, in large measure, also to the force’s organizational culture, which continues to look like a distant (and generally more successful) relative of the ground units.

Earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel retired from active service in the Israel Defense Forces after a career of 40 years, slightly more than five of them as commander of the air force. Along with the traditional mission of the IAF chief – preparing the force for war – Eshel had an additional assignment: keeping that war at bay and preventing the country from sliding into an armed conflict.

This was apparent in two campaigns. The first – attacks to block the delivery of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah – was conducted with limited power without the situation deteriorating into an all-out war in the north. As for the second – bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities – it was not implemented, though the air force trained for it vigorously, a task in which Eshel played an important role. He went about his business without angering his superiors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three defense ministers (Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman). In fact, all of them heap sincere praise on him.

“It’s not a problem to get Israel into a tangle,” Eshel told me when I spoke to him at the beginning of the month, on the eve of his retirement. “So far we’ve succeeded in hitting the brakes.”

He’s referring primarily to the activity to thwart arms smuggling to Hezbollah through Syria and to other terrorist organizations in other sectors. Shortly after the civil war erupted in Syria, in 2011, Israel demarcated its red lines in the north: It would respond with military force to every attack on its territory from Syria and would act to disrupt the transfer of “tie-breaking” weapons systems to Lebanon. The fact that Israel pursued this policy actively without getting involved in the war in Syria, and in the general upheaval in the Middle East, is probably the most significant achievement that the successive Netanyahu governments can credit themselves with in recent years.

Most of the information about the attacks draws on reports in the international media. What is the Israeli public not understanding about this story?

Eshel: “I think the public understands well. The prime minister and the defense minister made declarations to the effect that there are things that Israel will not allow to happen. They made the declaration with the intention of carrying it out. There’s a wide range of actions that can be taken and there have been a great many successes. If we hadn’t succeeded, the potential threats would be far more significant today.”

Did the air force adversely affect Hezbollah’s military capabilities?

“Of things that Hezbollah wanted to have in its possession, a large part was unrealized. I will give you numbers, ballpark figures. Israel is coping with terrorism far from its borders, too. If you take the activity against terrorism in its newer sense – the campaign against the conveyance of strategic means of combat – it’s not that Israel didn’t do similar things in the past. It did, but the situation in the Middle East has changed. Until 2012, if you go back 10 years, there were very few preemptive operations, far from the border, by the air force. You can count them on fewer than the fingers of one hand. And there were operations, I don’t have to tell you, by the Mossad.

“Since 2012, I am talking about many dozens of operations. Let’s say that the number is close to three figures, in the northern sector and in other sectors. An operation can be something solitary, small and point-specific, or it can be an intensive week in which a great many items are involved. Happily, it occurs under the radar. You can view it as a direct accomplishment, given the equipment that’s destroyed. But something else also happened, which I find very significant: We succeeded in not plunging Israel into wars.”

In this file photo taken on Dec. 18, 2015 provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, a load of ammunition is prepared to be loaded on to Russian war planes at Hemeimeem air base in Syria.Credit: Vadim Savitsky/AP

Could that have happened?

“Easily. A mistake could have many components: undesirable friction with enemies, with great powers, or all of it together. The smart thing is to be effective, to achieve what’s required, but below the bar at which we escalate into war. And in the Middle East, it’s very easy to escalate into war. I think this is a great achievement. It’s easy enough to be a bull in a china shop. We were able to act rightly and not get into a war. In some cases the force we used was like a hammer, and in some cases it was just a small ‘click,’ and that’s enough. And if you factor in the excellent intelligence – really extraordinary intelligence – and the determination of the decision makers, that means that when Israel has vested interests, it acts despite the risks. I think that in the eyes of our enemies, as far as I understand it, this is a language that’s understood here and also understood far from the Middle East.”

Is it understood in Moscow, too?

“Yes. There’s something else here, which we will be able to gauge only in hindsight, but in my view, our actions reduced the possibility of war. We didn’t eliminate it, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be some miscalculation tomorrow – anything is possible. But when someone feels that you know more about them than they would have expected, and when you’re determined to act, even when it looks impossible, and you act sharply and precisely, that doesn’t generate a desire for wars.

“I’m the last person who wants to convey a message here that the wars in the Middle East are done with. I will say it very soberly. I am not deluding myself, because things can lurch out of control here. But every action like that – and they know what’s going on – is a message that is understood very well: ‘It’s not worth it, not now.’ That’s a positive result of these operations, even if it’s not their central aim.”

New kid in the neighborhood

Beginning in September 2015, the IAF’s freedom of action over Syria faced an acute challenge, following Russia’s deployment of two combat squadrons in northern Syria, with the aim of saving the regime of President Bashar Assad. Afterward, the Russians installed advanced air-defense systems, whose radar is capable of identifying every liftoff from an Israeli base, from at least as far as the northern Negev. Netanyahu went to Moscow quickly at the time, in order to arrange, with President Vladimir Putin, a mechanism to prevent aerial friction between the two air forces. Netanyahu and Putin met five times within about a year. In some of the meetings they were joined by the director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, and by the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, alongside their Russian counterparts.

“We realized that a new and very significant player had entered the arena,” Eshel says. “A potential for friction, one that could cause dangerous results, had been created. Certainly we have nothing against them, but we have interests and they have interests, and they converge in the Syrian airspace. How do you reduce the possibility of unintended mutual harm? The strategic consequences could be serious. To date, it [the mechanism that was worked out] has stood the test well.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits inside an Apache Helicopter and speaks Israel Air Force chief Amir Eshel during his visit to the Tel Nof air force base in southern Israel, August 17, 2016.Credit: Amir Cohen / Reuters

In November 2015, Turkish planes downed a Russian warplane on the Syria-Turkey border, sparking a serious crisis between Moscow and Istanbul. Israel sought to prevent, almost at any price, a similar clash with the Russians. “There’s one thing you have to understand: In the air, things can happen within a second, with all due respect to a directive by Putin or by the prime minister,” Eshel explains. “In the end, the question is: How do we foster a situation in which a lieutenant here, or his counterpart on the Russian side, doesn’t make that mistake. The lieutenant has to decide here and now, and it’s possible that within a second he will have made a mistake, and we’ve gone and entangled Israel. That’s something we cannot allow ourselves. In the technical sense, we reduce the possibility that this will happen. We know how to communicate. We do not coordinate our activity with the Russians in advance. It’s not that we tell them what we are going to do [in Syria].”

How does it work, if you don’t coordinate with them?

“There’s something technical here, and there are leaders’ directives, and trust. We don’t intend to harm the Russians, and we do everything to avoid harming them. They understand why we are taking action. They don’t agree or give us authorization, but I think they understand what Israel is doing. It is fighting terrorism, preventing the delivery of means of combat.”

Agreement isn’t part of the story?

“It’s not a matter of agreement. Sovereign states need to respect other states, and in this case we are both involved with the same geographical slot. We have no beef with the Russians. We do have a beef with deliveries of arms that endanger our security.”

It’s been almost two years. Have Russian planes or defense systems locked on to Israeli planes? Were there situations of near-confrontation?

“Locking on is not a situation of almost being hit. There have been no situations of near-clash, because we are conducting ourselves correctly. When I look now at the scope of Russian activity during two years, at how many times they have violated Israeli sovereignty, my point of departure is that the majority were by mistake, it’s nothing. There were situations in which we contacted them in real time and said that there had been a mistake [of the Russians entering Israeli airspace], and they immediately responded and corrected. That’s alright. We have not seen provocations.”

Still, when a pilotless plane – apparently Russian – appears suddenly in Israel’s skies, what happens?

Outgoing Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel in 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

“Everything tenses up, certainly. We do what needs to be done. It’s all at top speed, but we behave responsibly. I think the Russians know that we are not Turkey.”

Preemptive strike

Eshel’s sober-minded approach did not conflict with his determination to develop the air force’s offensive weaponry. That’s apparent when he presents, for the first time, what he sees as one of the force’s key missions under his command.

Fifty years after the Six-Day War,” he says, “we have restored to Israel first-strike capability for the northern sector. That capability is based on precise intelligence. When you act by surprise, you shock the enemy. I am not saying that Israel should launch a preemptive strike. That’s a strategic dilemma, and everything needs to be examined in its context. But today we have that capability, including against the new enemies: terrorist organizations with a relatively decentralized control system and with high capabilities.”

Didn’t Israel always have that ability?

“Not really. The question is, how effective you are. There’s something here now that has been translated into plans. An achievement is possible that I consider phenomenal. It won’t end the war within three hours, but it will advance us to victory, to shortening the war, dramatically. The driving force here is the chief of staff. We were engaged in building these capabilities even before, but at the start of his tenure we sat together. That’s a conversation I won’t forget. He asked: Will you be able to create a kind of equivalent to Operation Moked? Moked is of course the most famous operation in IAF history: the destruction of most of the planes of the Egyptian and Syrian air forces in the first hours of the 1967 Six-Day War.

“I told him: Of course. It takes years, it’s not easy, it’s not that we have some sort of recipe. We have capability, and in the end it has to be translated into plans and training. That capability is back in our toolbox. Whether we activate it or not, that’s already a different matter.”

The question is whether that capability might not be an enticement for the political decision makers at times, and could take the country into unnecessary places.

“That’s already a matter of context. I think that our role is to create those tools. Today’s air force offers the IDF and the State of Israel capabilities that in my view are unprecedented. The potential exists to do things differently. A different strategy. On the face of it, you can say: Whoever has a certain tool every hammer is going to look for its nails. The usual way of thinking in regard to a preemptive strike is that you get up one fine day and pounce on someone. That’s not the event we’re living in. The strategic price of a move like that would be very high. But what happens in a situation of tension, such as in the Six-Day War, with its three weeks of waiting? States of tension can last a long time. The question is if [while that’s happening,] you have the ability to get up and attack. Now, are you tempted to use it? I’m not grading anyone, but I’ve seen not a little responsibility in decision making for many years. Anyone who goes for actions like these understands that the situation in their wake will be completely different, and there are high prices to pay. But what I’ve seen – and I’ve seen quite a lot – is plenty of responsibility.”

The Israeli-led Blue Flag international exercise held in 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Dispute over Iran

Beginning in 2008, even before the rise in tension on the northern front, the political and security hierarchy in Israel was immersed in a dispute that divided it for years, on the question of whether to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. The issue was first raised for discussion toward the end of Ehud Olmert’s tenure as prime minister, particularly by the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak. When Netanyahu took office, in May 2009, he immediately instructed the IDF to accelerate the operational preparations for an attack. In short order, a coalition formed of senior figures in the security branches who acted to restrain the attack ambitions of Netanyahu and Barak (the latter continued to serve as defense minister in the Likud-led coalition).

The coalition consisted of three successive chiefs of staff (Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Eisenkot), two Mossad chiefs (Meir Dagan and Tomer Pardo) and a director of the Shin Bet security service (Yuval Diskin). At the time when the question first arose, Eshel was head of the General Staff’s planning directorate. Shortly before Meir Dagan’s death, he hinted, in an interview with Ilana Dayan on Channel 2’s “Fact” program, that the opposition of the heads of the security bodies had curbed the political decision makers on several occasions, when they ordered the IDF to prepare a practical option for an attack. In the end, Netanyahu and Barak did not force their view on the security experts.

Security sources who were involved in the secret discussions told Haaretz that Eshel, who took over as IAF commander in May 2012, continued and intensified the agenda adopted by his two predecessors, Eliezer Shkedi and Ido Nehushtan – in upgrading the force’s preparations and honing its operational capability for an attack, while expressing reservations about a unilateral attack that would not involve the Americans. In practice, the air force commander successfully pulled off something that was almost self-contradictory. The air force’s stance was critical, as its personnel possess the sole professional authority to estimate the probability of success of such a complex operation.

Eshel agrees to comment on the subject only indirectly; this is the only time in the interview when he seems to be feeling his way with extreme caution. “We have operational responsibility here,” he says. “That stands out sharply in the air force, because there are few people who understand this capability. We put our professional truth on the table very forcefully. What is possible and what is impossible. You ask about an additional level, the strategic level: Is it in fact right to attack? Discussions take place in closed, small forums. We are given the right to voice our opinion in the most senior forums. In the end, someone above us decides.

“You try to analyze, and the state doesn’t always tell you what it wants clearly,” Eshel continues. “You ask yourself: Okay, what do I have in hand, what can I develop or what can I do to implement what it [the state] wants? And now comes the question of whether you are proactive or passive. We perceive ourselves as people who move, initiate, persuade. It’s clear that they are not experts on our capabilities. Only we understand what we know how to deliver, but that requires us to be acquainted with the strategic level, in order to understand the [changes taking place regionally].”

Let’s say that in another 20 years, a historian of the air force asks you what the primary challenge was on your watch. Will you tell him that you engaged in improving the attack capabilities while pushing on the strategic brakes?

“I didn’t feel that I braked anything [with respect to the Iran issue]. In our language, braking means lowering a hook and bringing the plane to a stop. The army does not push on the brake. The army states its professional truth. When there are proper processes, when dialogue takes place, when you’re apprised of the different angles and the great challenges... these are not technical matters. They are substantive questions with very great influence. Into that, you come and describe your professional angle. There are a great many professional issues in which you say [to the political decision makers]: Listen, the fact that you want this is fine, but look for a moment at the implications, at the possible developments. Now let’s ask ourselves if this is what we want. A professional process generally brings better results.”

The Israeli-led Blue Flag international exercise held in 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

New friends

Amir Eshel, 58, was born and raised in Ramat Gan. He was drafted in 1977 into the pilots training course. Subsequently, he commanded F-16 and Phantom squadrons, was the head of the IAF’s operations department, commanded the Ramon and Tel Nof air force bases, and served as both head of an air force wing and the force’s chief of staff.

In recent years, the air force has devoted considerable efforts to establishing closer relations with its counterparts in other countries. The Israel and foreign media have reported mainly on joint training exercises with such friendly countries as Greece, Cyprus and Romania. Here and there, in the Arab and international media, a glimpse has been provided of more clandestine relations, to which Eshel refers only implicitly and indirectly as “aerial diplomacy” or the creation of an “aerial bridge.”

In a joint exercise held recently in the United States, Israel and Jordanian aircraft took part in parallel, and Israeli planes – according to foreign news sources – reportedly fueled Jordanian planes in midair on the way to an exercise in Nevada. Two years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel transferred American-made Cobra combat helicopters to Jordan, after they’d been phased out of use in the IAF. Wilayat Sinai, as the Islamic State branch in the Sinai Peninsula is called, has repeatedly accused Israel of using unmanned aerial vehicles to attack its personnel, in the service of Egypt. It’s clear from the reports that the wars in the Arab world have allowed Israel to find new allies, along the contours of these new regional conflicts.

Eshel confirms that, “The situation has changed, there is a convergence of interests between Israel and other countries in the region. We see the same enemies eye to eye. Cooperation in the air is far easier. There’s a common, understood language; there are undesirable things that can be avoided. Cooperation in the air is far closer than what it looks like from the ground. We are an instrument of the statesmen, who activate us quickly as they wish and stop us immediately as they wish. As the prime minister said, this creates tremendous assets for the state. Two years ago, I would not have imagined that things like this would happen, that we’d get to the places we’ve gotten to. Not on such a scale, not in terms of distance.”

The August 10 ceremony at which the new IAF commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, was installed was attended by the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, who conferred on Eshel the Legion of Merit award. During Eshel’s tenure, about 15 commanders of foreign air forces paid a total of 38 visits to Israel.

Eshel observed the most burning issue that engaged the IDF in the past 18 months mainly from the side. IAF personnel have barely been involved in the confrontation with terrorism in the West Bank, and the furor generated by the trial of Elor Azaria, the “Hebron shooter,” bypassed the force completely. Eshel is convinced that the chief of staff acted properly in the Azaria case. “There was very rapid understanding that this was an anomalous event by any criterion,” he says. “The investigation was professional and the response correct. It’s clear that there was both a professional failure and a moral failure here. Two court instances have already passed judgment. The ability of commanding officers to investigate, to speak out clearly, morally and professionally, is the heart and soul of the army. Without that, we will fall apart. We can close up the shop then.”

IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Maj.Gen. Tamir Hayman in 2016.Credit: Itamar Moatti / IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The air force’s dilemmas in the territories are of a completely different order. According to IDF data, 2,125 Palestinians were killed in Operation Protective Edge, the most recent war in the Gaza Strip, in 2014. A large number of those killed died in aerial attacks. The IDF acknowledges that there were 761 civilians among them. However, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs claimed that civilian deaths were far higher, totaling at least 1,483.

“In our case, if we were to make a mistake in planning the attacks, you could get up the next morning with 2,000 noncombatants killed in Gaza,” Eshel suggests, adding, “But when I look for a moment at the data and compare with armies like ours elsewhere... I don’t claim we are more moral than they are. When the subject comes up in meetings with the Americans, with other members of the coalition [the international coalition, whose planes are attacking ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq] – we are far ahead of them in these indices, and our mode of operation is highly regarded by our colleagues. Compared to others, we kill more terrorists and kill fewer noncombatant civilians.

“I say this with care: In not a few campaigns we took criticism from within the army for [not being tough enough]. I stuck to my opinion clearly: Friends, we too have responsibility. If we hadn’t stopped, we might have ended up with far more noncombatants killed. That criticism of us is legitimate. But I feel a certain pride precisely for the targets we didn’t attack and didn’t authorize – even though the force’s mission is to attack and win.”

During the war, Gideon Levy published an extremely critical column about the air force in this paper. Published on July 15, 2014, it was titled, in Hebrew, “The worst to the air force” [a play on the iconic slogan, “The best to the air force”; title on the English edition's website: “Lowest deeds from loftiest heights”].

A Palestinian family sits in their destroyed home in Gaza City, which was attacked by Israel during Operation Protective Edge, September 2014. Credit: Anne Paq / Activestills.org

Eshel: “That pinched and it stabbed. I didn’t like what he wrote, but it’s part of freedom of expression. After the piece appeared, demonstrators wearing white robes smeared with blood showed up at the gate of the Hatzor base, during the war. But in the end, our role is to defend everyone.

“The type of confrontation is not going to change in the coming campaigns, not in Gaza and especially not in Lebanon. That is my working assumption. It’s going to become more intensive than it’s been until now. I will have to choose whether I knock down this house, because there are two rockets in it that are going to be fired at Israel at some point, or not to hit it, because maybe I will harm enemy civilians. Every case has to be examined at the level of context and proportionality. That’s a commander’s decision – a moral decision intended to defend the country’s residents. I know there are rockets there, and I know there is also a family there. And now I have to decide what to do if those rockets hit an identical house in Israel where there’s a family, or four families. Those are the dilemmas. And I will have to ask myself what we did in order to lower the possibility that this family [of the enemy] will be harmed. What we told them before the confrontation, during the war. What means we adopt.

“It’s clear to me that we will not be able to avoid this entirely, there’s no question of that. Hence my recommendation to the people of Lebanon – you’ve heard it a hundred times: They know exactly what they have in the house. They are well aware who is wandering around there in 200 Hezbollah villages in southern Lebanon – and they will be well advised not to remain at home. Those who do not remain at home will survive. We will not harm them. They have to understand that Hezbollah has married them to these means [of combat], and we cannot tie our hands and say that it’s impossible to attack there. We will have no choice but to act. We will not be able to leave Israel undefended when a thousand rockets a day are being fired at the country. Anyone who thinks we will now wait three weeks [once a war has started] before taking action – that will not be the case.

“Our intelligence continues to improve, and the armaments are becoming more precise, too. But the fighting in the northern sector is going to be more intensive from the word go, both there and here – and not because we are removing the moral and ethical reins. I am not talking about moral anarchy. That will not happen.”

Eshel also notes a large improvement in the IAF’s ability to attack targets within a limited time – it’s increased by a factor of four or five in the past few years. The force has also tightened its joint activity with the ground forces, amid strikingly short security distances from those forces during combat, allowing it to assist in attacking enemy forces that are threatening IDF units even in densely built-up areas.

At the same time, intercept capability has also been enhanced. Since 2011, when the aerial defense system started to intercept rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, 1,320 rockets have been intercepted, with a 90-percent success rate for the Iron Dome system (and in at least one case, the Arrow system). Firing has also originated from Lebanon, Syria and Sinai. Additionally, in the past five years, 10 UAVs that infiltrated Israeli airspace from various countries have been shot down. In contrast, the air force continues to seek solutions for how to respond offensively to short-range rockets. In wartime, it will be very difficult to deal effectively with the tens of thousands of short-range rockets Hezbollah has deployed in the heart of crowded villages in southern Lebanon.

In this July 29, 2014 photo, smoke and fire from an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City.Credit: Hatem Moussa/AP

Can the air force continue to function under an offensive of tens of thousands of missiles and rockets from Lebanon?

“The bottom line is that it will be impossible to stop the air force. Not because I issued a particular order. We have conducted numberless analyses. There’s a lot of voodoo here, and plenty of fears, and that’s perfectly fine. There’s no one more apprehensive than we are – we who surprised the other side in the Six-Day War – about something similar happening from the opposite direction. Civilian experts in performance analysis have examined our basic assumptions and even told us that we are being too conservative.”

At the end of 2016, the air force received its first F-35 fighters from the U.S. (and with that country’s financial assistance) – the most expensive planes Israel has ever purchased. Eshel has flown the aircraft 10 times in the past few months. IAF headquarters, under him and his predecessor, Ido Nehushtan, backed the controversial acquisition unequivocally. The plane’s integration, Eshel says, will be a “totally different event” from the air force’s point of view.

“I don’t look at it just as a plane and capability,” he explains. “Before the plane was received, we thought about how to change the air force and adapt it to a fifth-generation fighter, and not the opposite. If we’d done the opposite, we would have only diminished the plane’s capabilities. You need to look at it at a system-wide level – not of the plane, of the whole air force. How the F-35 makes the other planes far more effective, the information it shares with them and with our information centers, how they can then do so much more thanks to that information. It goes far beyond the fact that it can operate in places that no other plane can.”

A plethora of American media reports claim the plane is a white elephant that will implode, that the project is riddled with hitches and is the most expensive in history. And your response is “Nonsense”?

“[The Americans] embarked on something very ambitious in its capabilities. We already see what this plane has. Not everything is perfect. There are things you learn along the way. That’s been the case with every plane we acquired. But when you take off in this plane from Nevatim [base], you can’t believe it. At 5,000 feet, the whole Middle East is there for you in the cockpit. You see things, it’s inconceivable. American pilots who visit us haven’t seen anything like it, because they fly over Arizona or Florida, and here they suddenly see the [entire] Middle East as a combat zone – the threats, the different players, at both close range and long range. Only then do you grasp the enormous potential of this machine. We’re already seeing it with our eyes.”

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