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Israel's right-wing government clearly signaled that its qualified "yes" to Middle East peace talks was not a "no" to Jewish settlement in occupied Arab land."This government does not intend to change its policy on settling the land of Israel," Justice Minister Dan Meridor said on Aug. 5, as 15 Jewish families settled into mobile homes hauled into the West Bank just hours before. Settlers began setting up the homes with government approval at Eshkolot in a move seen as darkening the atmosphere as United States Secretary of State James Baker III ended his latest and most promising peace shuttle. The settlement was the first since Israel agreed conditionally last week to attend an unprecedented Middle East peace conference sponsored by Washington and Moscow. The US, Israel's main ally and source of aid, views settlements as an obstacle to peace. Arab states want them frozen. Mr. Meridor, who is close to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, told Israel radio: "I don't think we have to make a matter like this, which does not have deep meaning, into an obstacle to peace." Critics said the new settlement was meant to sabotage the peace talks. The "Peace Now" movement staged a demonstration at Eshkolot near the West Bank city of Hebron. "If the road to the negotiating table is blocked, it is the Israeli government's fault," said Yossi Sarid of the Citizens' Rights Movement. "The new settlement is in practice the negative answer to the peace initiative of the US administration. Officially, the reply is 'Yes,' but in practice in the occupied territories the answer is 'No,' he said.

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