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Confidence creeps back into Lebanon

Confidence was returning to Lebanon May 19, but with background worries: Would the Israelis act militarily? Would the indiscriminate shelling of Beirut resume?

The heavy shelling of the past three days tapered off the night of May 18, and by the morning of May 19 traffic was flowing on Beirut's normally crowded streets once again. Arab and Western observers, however, were reticent about saying whether the peace would last.

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[A Syrian claim to have shot down an Israeli unmanned reconnaissance plane May 19 was denied by an Israeli spokesman, Reuter reported.]

Removing these fears, and thus making a real breathing space for the crisis-weary Lebanese, seems to depend on:

1. The diplomacy of American envoy Philip C. Habib, who concluded talks in Damascus May 19 and proceeded to Jerusalem for discussions with Israeli leaders.

2. Saudi Arabia, which has been active in the mediation of the crisis from its outset at the end of April.

Israel remains the key actor, and analysts wonder whether Prime Minister Menachem Begin can accept what so far appears to be a Syrian moral -- if not military -- victory over the issue of Syrian troops and missiles in Lebanon. any way Mr. Begin moves, he seems likely to lose.

Accepting the Syrian antiaircraft missiles would mean he accepts a strategic loss for Israel, which previously had air superiority over Lebanon.Attacking the missiles in southern Lebanon grows more costly each day with Syria and the Palestinians in southern Lebanon bracing themselves in defensive positions.

Lebanese, Palestinian, and Western sources are all beginning to agree that the threat of war is receding. A Palestinian spokesman told the Monitor he does not think there will be a major Israeli-Syrian clash, but he still says it is possible that Israel will mount an incursion into southern Lebanon.

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If the Habib mission has not actually hammered out a compromise between Syria and Israel, it does appear to have served as a catalyst for two trends that have acted to ameliorate the crisis:

* In the past week, Mr. Begin has seen that he does not enjoy a national consensus on his policy toward Lebanon and that he cannot expect to act with impunity. Begin's political opponent in the June 30 general elections, Shimon Peres, has been able to lead opposition without appearing to be a traitor.

* At the same time, Saudi Arabia has moved to back Syria. On its face, this seems to reinforce the hard line of Syria's Hafez Assad.

But Saudi influence also means Saudi moderation. A meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Tunis May 22 could serve the Saudis to reconstitute the Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon as a pan-Arab, rather than mostly Syrian, peacekeeping army. This would play well with the US and the Begin government.

The firm Syrian position not to remove the missiles and the actual downing of Israeli drones last week ensure that if Assad moves toward a compromise, he will be doing so from a position of strength. Begin, on the other hand, seems stuck with accepting greater Syrian presence in Lebanon than before the crisis began April 28 -- that or a costly military raid.

The crisis developed when Israeli planes shot down two Syrian helicopters over central Lebanon. Syria responded by bringing in batteries of surface-to-air missiles and beefing up its 30,000-man force in Lebanon. Mr. Begin demanded that the missiles be removed and has threatened to use force. Syria refuses to remove them.

At the moment, Beirut is back to a sense of normality. One sign of confidence is that there is no evidence of an exodus during the current lull. A longtime diplomatic observer notes that when calm ensues, the Lebanese generally go back to work to make up for lost time rather than use the opportunity to escape.

What seems to typify the resilience of Lebanon is the day-to-day ability to cope with precarious atmosphere. On Monday, for instance, Hamra Street in West Beirut was shuttered and deserted. Great booms sounded from cannons at work . . . destroying.

On Tuesday, the shops were open, traffic noisy, and the construction crews around town back at work . . . building.

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