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Many Americans would respond as readily as President Reagan to the question, What do you want for Christmas? "You know what I'm going to say," Mr. Reagan answered reporters at his White House press conference. "I want peace."

"Well, what do you want in a box?" went the followup question.

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"If you can get it in a box, I'll take it in a box."

There is something about the holidays that makes the yearning for peace spontaneous. In leaders and the public alike, the simple, clear Christmas message - a Prince of Peace born to bring peace on earth -- stirs within thought a longing for harmony, in the family and the nation and the world.

This holiday season the context for "peace," as a public issue, is Lebanon. True, arms control and Central America must also be considered. Talks with the Soviets have settled into a Siberian chill. Central American issues continue unsettled, as El Salvador moves toward elections troubled by "death squad" terrorism on the right and rebel entrenchment on the left; and as Nicaragua's leftist leaders observe mounting pressure from Washington. But the Middle East, for reasons apart from the emotional overtones of its religious significance, claims primary attention.

"The Middle East is a tinderbox," President Reagan said the other night. "It is the one place that could start a war that no one wanted, because of its importance, particularly to the free world and to our allies. And we can't just turn away and say if we don't look it'll go away. And all this all started because of our determination to try and bring about peace between those factions that have been so long warring with each other."

What are the prospects for Middle East peace in 1984, after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's exodus from Lebanon?

For the Palestinian cause generally, as in their claims on the West Bank, the year ahead looks grim indeed. There should be relief that the world was spared witnessing a violent wipeout of Arafat's 4,000 loyalists in Tripoli. The Palestinian humiliation in Lebanon was assured a year ago with the Israeli invasion. The question of Palestinian leadership, of whether Arafat will be able to make amends with the rival factions that helped drive him from Lebanon, remains open. PLO remnants in Lebanon are under Syrian control. The Palestinians have lost the initiative. The major players are the United States, Israel, and Syria. If things break right in Lebanon, the PLO might get back into the act later. But Palestinian interests seem to have fallen off the board as Washington reaffirms its ties with Israel and highlights Lebanon.

Prospects for some kind of settlement in 1984 in Lebanon are possibly better, argue some analysts.

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President Amin Gemayel and his Phalange backers have at least two other groups who could want a settlement -- that is, the emergence of a Lebanese nation not partitioned into Syrian and Israeli redoubts. The Druse, who have won the battle for their own autonomous base, and the Shiites, Lebanon's largest faction of whom at least a portion are not interested in joining "Greater Syria, " have reason to consider themselves "Lebanese." Both apparently want a deal.

Whether Syria's Assad wants a deal is another matter. Assad, after Israel's Begin, has been the Middle East's most skillful negotiator. Assad can be tough, his actions ruthless; at times he can reach for an agreement. He's hard to read. It likely won't be known until the last moment whether he will cooperate in the reconciliation talks now under way. So far, it doesn't appear the US and other parties have really tested Assad for a deal.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves ambiguous the role of the US Marines in Lebanon. Last week the White House suggested a pullout was likely if Gemayel failed quickly to accommodate the other factions in a power-sharing agreement. This week the President suggested the Marine presence was open-ended. No doubt Mr. Reagan wants to give both impressions -- that the US will not quit and run but will stay within the peacekeeping contingent to bolster Gemayel's hand, while at the same time pressuring Gemayel not to hide behind a US presence.

So far in 1983, the preoccupation in Lebanon has been military. The best prospects for 1984, as Mr. Reagan himself partly acknowledges, appear to be diplomatic.

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