Lebanon breathes a bit easier as crisis with Syria and Israel eases

Lebanon is moving back from the brink. The week-old Syrian-Israeli "missile crisis" appeared to be easing May 5 -- as did the month-old battle between rightist Phalange forces and Syrian troops of the Arab Deterrent Force in the Bekaa Valley and downtown Beirut.

Although there is still the possibility of a new, serious turn of events, for the time being the many guns of Lebanon are silent.

Most Arab commentators in Beirut are backing away from predictions of a direct Israeli-Syrian war over the issue of Syrian antiaircraft missiles in the Bekaa Valley, even though Syria has not yet pulled the missiles out, nor has Israel softened its demands that Syria do so.

Although a genuine "national reconciliation" is likely to eludge the many factions in Lebanon, a return to edgy-but-quiet status quo seems probable.

On May 5 the influential, center-of-the-road Arab newspaper An Nahar quoted informed sources as saying that Lebanese officials had been extremely concerned about a showdown between Syria and Israel in Lebanon. These same officials are breathing a bit easier in view of persistent signals from Jerusalem and Washington that diplomacy is being emphasized.

But at the same time, the high hopes that had been placed in negotiations with Syrian Foreign minister Abdul Halim Khaddam seemed to be receding. The Phalangists, under Pierre and Bashir Gemayel, appearedunable or unwilling to concede any more to the Syrians. Damascus, having gained the upper hand militarily, was not in need of a compromise solution.

Yet Arab sources believe a 10-day cooling-off period will now occur to allow all sides to regroup.

Still the simple lack of fighting that has come about does not take care of Lebanon's short-sentially, are:

1. Breaking the semi-siege of Beirut, evidenced by the closing of Beirut's airport April 20.

2. Working out a political power-sharing arrangement that gives voice to the nation's two dozen or more factions, without paralyzing decisionmaking.

Life in Lebanon is decidedly less cosmopolitan these days. On the many newsstands in this Arab capital, which is known for its free exchange of ideas, the foreign newspapers and magazines are frozen with the date of April 19. Along Beirut's steamy streets, stocks are low at merchants' makeshift pen, candy , and disco-tapestalls.

But the taxi route to Damascus is busy. Next week a hydrofoil will connect the Phalangist port of Junieh with Cyprus (travel time advertised optimistically at three hours). Thus, as always, the Lebanese are making do: There is no sign of a mass exodus.

"Those here are survivors," says a Palestinian businessman who has lived in Lebanon since 1948. Then he adds, "But I myself would like to get out pretty soon."

Almost all of the inconveniences in Lebanon these days can be attributed to the closure of Beirut International Airport. Many Lebanese I have talked with do not see the strain of isolation as being dire, but they confess that psychologically the city seems cut off -- and they lament not being able to dash off to Paris or Bahrain on a moment's notice.

The airport appears certain to remain closed for at least several more days. (In 1976, the airport was closed for six month.) Middle East Airlines put its 700 employees on half salary at the beginning of the week.

On May 4, a mortar round came out of the otherwise unthreatening skies and landed on the runway, signaling to airport officials that the facility must remain closed until further notice. The Phalange is seeking unhindered access to the terminal for East Beirut residents. And airport sources say the Syrian Army is seeking to put its soldiers in key airport positions -- such as customs -- to further control security.

But Lebanon is still quite liveable for its residents. Occasional garbage trucks make the rounds. Schools are reopening, and the civil service is at work.

There is even one glint of silver peeking out of the cloud of isolation: plump, delicious Lebanese fruit, norma lly exported to Europe or the Arabian Gulf, is found in abundance at corner stands.

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