Hebron, Israeli-occupied West Bank — On a tiny slope amid old stone Arab homes, a handful of Israeli settlers have underscored the political vulnerability of Israel's prime minister-designate, Shimon Peres.
The settlers, having suddenly moved four trailer homes onto a site near Hebron's old Jewish cemetery late Wednesday, set about Thursday to make their new outpost permanent. Mr. Peres's Labor Party opposes such settlement in heavily populated Arab areas.
Waist-high Arab children watched the settlers with looks of gloomy curiosity from the shade of nearby olive trees. The settlers worked on undeterred.
''Shalom,'' one man called to the Arab onlookers. Another Israeli, pointing at landmarks like a surveyor, climbed onto the terrace of a neighboring Arab home as its owners stayed silently aloof.
Immediately below, a bulldozer plowed a pair of small dusty access roads to the settlement. Barbed wire, presumably for a security perimeter, lay furled and ready. Two men nailed an Israeli flag to one of the new settlement's battered metal trailer homes.
Although Peres has been designated prime minister, he fell short in last month's election of winning a clear mandate to limit such settlement.
Peres won only a narrow plurality over the incumbent right-wing government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir - and now he is in the thick of acrobatic coalition bargaining with Mr. Shamir and other politicians firmly committed to West Bank settlement.
Peres, seeking to assemble a working majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament , cannot mathematically do so without the help of at least some of the country's pro-settlement parties.
Specifically, he is trying to achieve either a ''national unity'' alliance with Shamir's Likud bloc or a necessarily narrower majority bringing in various Orthodox religious parties.
But as the new settlers got to work Thursday on their new outpost, both Likud and the Orthodox parties were resisting moves for a compromise settlement-policy platform allowing settlement only in West Bank areas agreed on by all factions in a new, Peres-led coalition.
Hebron, one Labor parliamentarian said Thursday, would certainly not fall under that rubric.
With some 40,000 Arab residents, Hebron is the second largest city on the West Bank, an area captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Under the Israeli system, Peres has an initial period of 21 days to try to assemble a Cabinet commanding a parliamentary majority. If he fails, Israel's nonpartisan President can either give him 21 more days, or turn to another politician - presumably incumbent Prime Minister Shamir.
On Thursday, one Shamir ally and incumbent Cabinet minister, Yuval Neeman, rejected Israeli media speculation that the new Hebron settlement was an overtly ''political'' act amid Peres's coalition talks with Shamir and other politicians.
Among Hebron's Palestinians, however, there seemed little difference of opinion on that score.
''Of course it is political,'' said Mustapha Natshe, acting Arab mayor of the town until Israeli authorities dismissed him following the fatal stabbing in Hebron of a Jewish seminary student in July 1983. Since then, an Israeli official has acted as head of the municipality.
Mr. Natshe said the settlers were moving to create facts on the ground amid Peres's efforts to put together a government that would be less friendly to their attempts than the present leadership.
An Israeli political analyst in Jerusalem posited another possible catalyst. Noting that the new outpost had the approval of the Shamir government, the commentator saw the timing of the settlement as a reminder to the Orthodox parties that, no matter what Peres might tell them, the present government was a much better ideological bet.
One settler, Chicago-born Uri Carzin, was asked about the timing of the move. He said the settlers had merely been awaiting the government's go-ahead, and that this had come several days ago.
Pro-settlement forces, including Shamir, see the West Bank as an inseparable part of the land of Israel.
Citing biblical history and present-day security prerogratives, they oppose the Labor Party's declared readiness to explore the possibility of handing at least part of the area back to Jordan in exchange for peace.
The land on which the new settlement is being implanted was part of the communal religious holdings of Hebron Jews before a 1929 massacre at the hands of the city's Arabs.
Unlike other controversial settlements in downtown Hebron under Likud's seven-year tenure, however, the plot never held any Jewish residences.
''Here, we're sort of breaking out a ghetto so to speak,'' one settler told Israel Radio on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the new settlement also served to emphasize the overall success of Likud's long campaign to make widespread West Bank settlement an accomplished fact. Where once local Arabs howled in protest at each new settlement move, ex-Mayor Natshe offered Thursday a far more limited protest.
His main objection was that the new outpost had been wedged purposefully within a few yards of surrounding Arab residences - a ''dangerous precedent'' that he said almost ensured friction.
''Maybe tomorrow a boy will throw a stone in that area,'' he said. ''Then what will happen?''
''These people are working to put themselves in a highly populated area only to create violence,'' he said.
''There are other places. There are many flats empty in Kiryat Arba'' - a reference to the large, urban Israeli settlement on a hill just outside Hebron.
''Why here? Only to create facts - and to create anger.''