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Invasion of Lebanon postponed; Israeli sword lowered - but ready

Israel, which raised its sword along the Lebanese border last week, lowered it this week after its militant intentions were apparently neutralized or at least postponed by internal opposition and external pressures.

The government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin held back from its widely anticipated strike partly because of the large minority within the Cabinet opposed to it and the refusal by the Labor Party opposition to give it their backing.

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(Mr. Begin's coalition government narrowly retained power May 19 by defeating a parliamentary no-confidence motion over its handling of the economy by 58 votes to 57.)

Prime Minister Begin has sharply attacked members of the opposition who accused him of seeking pretexts to attack the PLO in Lebanon.

''Israel does not seek a war and it does not seek a pretext for making war,'' he declared at the May 16 Cabinet meeting. ''Its aim is to halt terrorist activities.'' Israel was exercising self-restraint, he said, but he warned that such self-restraint was ''uncharacteristic'' in the face of the provocations.

According to foreign reports, Israel had mustered two divisions on the Lebanese border. It was widely mooted in Israel that a massive strike was being planned in coordination with Christian Lebanese with the intention of destroying the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon.

If the large Syrian expeditionary force in Lebanon interfered, according to these reports, Israel was fully prepared to deal with them, too. Israel's Gen. Rafael Eitan declared that Israel could solve the problem of terrorist action from Lebanon by military action.

The threat of American sanctions was also reportedly a major factor in the Israeli decision to hold back. Washington has been issuing soothing calls from restraint in public but it has reportedly threatened the Israeli government with severe sanctions if a massive attack into Lebanon is launched.

Newspaper headlines now speak of reduced tensions along the border. The mass circulation daily Maariv recently published a front-page picture showing armored personnel carriers being loaded onto trailors as they were being shifted away from border positions. Such photographs showing operational movements of troops during periods of tension are subject to censor's approval. Their publication is as rare as the publication last week of reports that troops were massing on the border and that the Army had gone on alert.

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Following the Sunday Cabinet meeting, government sources indicated to reporters that any bloodshed inflicted by the PLO would still be met with an ''appropriate response.'' The possibility of such bloodshed remains high. Several bombs have been discovered or have exploded in recent days inside Israel , but they did not produce any casualties.

Defense Minister Ariel Sharon warned the PLO this week ''not to tax Israel's self-restraint'' by attacking Israeli targets inside Israel or anywhere else in the world.

Speaking at the dedication of a new Air Force base May 17, he made it clear that Israel interprets the cease-fire achieved with the PLO last year as applying to all fronts, not just the Lebanese front. PLO leaders say it applies only to the Lebanese front.

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