The end of a single battle in Lebanon has raised hopes in Washington for an end to the Middle East "missile crisis." It was always thought that arranging an end to the siege of Zahle, the much-fought- over, Phalangist-occupied stronghold in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, would be the easiest part of any settlement.
But it has not been easy. The fact that Arab League nations, in particular Saudi Arabia, worked in a sustained and effective way to end the siege has convinced some diplomats that they may be seeing a turning point in Lebanon.
On the negative side, the problem of the Syrian missiles in Lebanon remains. An American decision to supply Israel with four F-16 fighter-bombers, the delivery of which was suspended after the Israeli strike into Iraq, could harden Arab attitudes. A new, more hard-line Begin government in Israel might take actions that would stiffen Arab negotiating positions.
American officials are reluctant to talk publicly or privately about what is happening in Lebanon. But some sources said Philip C. Habib, President Reagan's Middle East envoy, deserved some of the credit for helping set the stage for an end to the battle of Zahle.
When it came to the Syrian missiles, one diplomat said, "Habib's presence gave the Israelis an excuse not to do as much as they might have done to disrupt things. . . . But his main function was to help get the Saudis involved."
US State Department spokesman Dean Fischer welcomed the lifting of the siege of Zahle but declined to get into the question of who should get credit for arranging an end to the battle. The Syrians have made clear that they do not want to engage in a Lebanon settlement that would have a "made in America" stamp on it. This is one reason for the American reluctance to comment.
But American officials are said to be encouraged by the role Saudi Arabia is playing in the crisis. In the American view, the normally reticent Saudis are showing they can engage in a sustained behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort, where the risks of failure are great, and produce results.
"I think it's promising for the short run, at least," said one Western diplomat who has worked on the Lebanon problem for a number of years. "We've always said that if the Arab group doesn't get into the Lebanon problem, we're never going to get it resolved. . . . The next move would be to get the Lebanese Army to take over from the Syrians in Beirut."
This same diplomat was discouraged, however, by the election results in Israel and the lack of any indication that the Palestinian aspects of the Middle East crisis were on the way to being resolved.
His gloom was shared by some State Department officials who fear that a new Begin government may take an even harder line toward Lebanon and the Palestinian question than did the outgoing one. They see trouble ahead if Prime Minister Menachem Begin appoints as his defense minister Ariel Sharon, the former Army general, war hero, and minister of agriculture.
One official pointed out that the Israeli-occupied West Bank was administered by the military under the minister of defense. As agriculture minister, Mr. Sharon had supported the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and, thus, in the view of some, had done much to make a possible agreement over the West Bank more difficult. As defense minister, he would have considerably more power.
One theory has it that a weak coalition government under Mr. Begin would be under pressure to go along with "hard-liners" such as Sharon. But another theory, tentatively put forth by at least a few officials, holds that Begin will have to be more yielding on the Palestinian questions in order to revive Israel's strained relations with Egypt.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, clearly hopes to gain some credit in Washington for acting as a moderating force in the region. One American close to Saudi thinking said that if the Saudis are able to succeed as mediators in Lebanon, they also might be able to help with the Palestinian problem.