Lebanon is awash in the colors and smells of a fruitful springtime. Plump strawberries at corner stands, soft mountain breezes, healthy young leaves. But in and around this country-turned-arena a tense strategic face-off pits Israel against Syria, each angling for the backing of their superpower patrons, the United States and the Soviet Union.
For Lebanon, the choice seems to boil down to a slow-building peace or a new Middle East war.
Leaders of Lebanon's political factions May 4 met with Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam in an attempt to secure that slow-building peace. But after five days of relative calm -- broken late May 3 by artillery and heavy-weapons fire around Beirut's "green line" -- rightist Phalange forces were pessimistic about the outcome of the multiparty negotiations.
To be successful, Syria's Khaddam would have to please all sides. That would mean providing security guarantees for the embattled Phalange, East Beirut access to the West Beirut airport, and the opening of transit lines across the city. In return, Khaddam was believed to be asking the Phalangists to renounce their recenlty revealed alliance with Israel -- and Syria's military battering of the Phalangists over the past month gives him some bargaining leverage.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, with elections approaching June 30, has been maneuvered into a corner over the issue of Syrian surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon. Begin and his chief political opponent, Shimon Peres, say the missiles threaten Israeli security and that government and opposition agree they must be removed.
These are the options Israel is facing:
* To let the missile issue die without seeking a return to the position before April 29 (when the missiles were first moved into Lebanon in response to an Israeli downing of two Syrian helicopters). This would open Begin to charges he had allowed Syria to gain strategic advantage by denying Israel its longstanding ability to send planes on patrol through Lebanese skies.
* To attack the missiles with Israeli aircraft. This would be a tricky military maneuver which probably would cost Israel several of its planes and would not prevent Syria from simply moving in replacement missiles. Such an attack, moreover, could spill over and threaten a Syrian -- and possibly a pan-Arab --
* To continue to push for a face-saving, diplomatic solution. This would involve trading at the superpower level. Washington would have to win an agreement from the Soviets in which the Syrians would pull back their missiles. What sort of concession would Moscow need from the Reagan administration to make this deal?
Along diplomatic lines, Western observers note that Israel deviated from its quick-retribution policy in southern Lebanon, following a recent Palestinian surface-rocket attack on northern Galilee. Southern Lebanon has been relatively quiet the past few days. Even though he is steadfastly opposed to the SAM missiles farther north, Begin has reiterated his willingness to allow Washington time to negotiate with Moscow over them.
No matter what the eventual outcome of the crisis, this points to an important result already emerging. Washington (with Israeli agreement) is dealing with Moscow as a major power broker in the Middle East. This comes at a time when Moscow has been wooing Arab leaders and pushing its own initiative for an international conference on the Arab-Israeli problem. This trend could alter the dominance of the US in the wake of the Egyptian-Israeli peace process of the late 1970s.
Thus the events in Lebanon in the next few days will have consequences affecting not only this balmy but troubl ed country but also the US-USSR strategic balance in the Middle East.