The Lebanon reconciliation conference has begun make-or-break debate on last May's US-mediated accord between Lebanon and Israel, with the Americans working hard behind the scenes to head off a crisis.
United States special Mideast envoy Richard Fairbanks is not attending the conference sessions. But he has been holding separate meetings with the rival Lebanese political-religious chieftains here, in an apparent bid to reassure Lebanon's opposition figures and pressure its government into a time-winning compromise.
Mr. Fairbanks had not, at time of writing Wednesday, held any known meeting with the key outside player in the equation: Abdel Halim Khaddam, the foreign minister of Lebanon's hard-line neighbor, Syria. Mr. Khaddam is attending the conference as an ''observer,'' but is said to have missed no occasion in the closed-door talks to stress Syrian opposition to the accord with Israel.
Still, one ranking Syrian source told a Western reporter Wednesday that Damascus would concentrate on getting the accord modified rather than demanding it be scrapped outright.
In Wednesday evening's session, at least three of the Lebanese delegates, including generally pro-Syrian former President Suleiman Franjieh, are understood similarly to have proposed some form of ''putting the agreement on ice.''
The May accord has become a major vehicle for bitter debate between Lebanon's traditionally dominant Maronite Christian leadership and an increasingly militant Muslim-Druze opposition over the shape the war-torn country should take.
The opposition - particularly men like Druze chief Walid Jumblatt and Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri - sees the accord as a sellout to the Israelis and as part of a longtime move by Lebanon's pro-Western Christians to pry the country loose from the Arab world.
The argument has so far held center stage at the conference, which is only later supposed to consider bedrock social, religious, and economic issues that have helped fuel eight years of on-and-off civil war in Lebanon.
The US hope is that the issue of the Israeli accord can be hedged without the opposition's demanding outright abrogation. The Americans and Lebanon's Christian President, Amin Gemayel, say abrogation is simply out of the question.
By late Wednesday, when the conference had begun its first formal debate on the Israel accord, the opposition leaders had not fully tipped their hand.
But even if they were ultimately to be convinced to defer the ''abrogation'' issue until after the current talks, one Lebanese source said, ''there remains the key question of what the Syrians, who are allied with these [opposition] leaders and have enormous leverage, will decide to do.''
''Fairbanks is saying that we should agree on a national-reconciliation government and then, in that framework, handle the issue of the accord [with Israel] later,'' said one of the opposition leaders he met.
Another opposition chief suggests the US envoy went even further - in a direction likely to rankle the Lebanese Christian leadership and the Israelis. Mr. Fairbanks is said to have made clear US willingness both to encourage internal Lebanese political reforms of the sort sought by the opposition and, in the longer run, to look for ways to activate the May agreement with Israel in ways that take account of all parties' security concerns, Syria's included.
Permeating Mr. Fairbanks's reported comments to opposition leaders has been the implicit assumption that Washington sees the May accord as ''frozen'' for the time being. The US envoy has so far declined any comment to reporters.
The Israel agreement, which has yet to be signed into formal treaty by President Gemayel, would trade the withdrawal of Israeli troops who invaded Lebanon last year for various security assurances to Israel in southern Lebanon and a move toward something approaching formal peace between Lebanon and Israel.
The US, at the time, radiated confidence that Syria could be brought into tacit support of the accord. That is, Syrian troops who have been in Lebanon since after the country's main bout of civil war in 1975-76 would leave as the Israelis did the same.
On internal Lebanese issues, thorny enough in themselves, it is fast becoming clear that the Geneva conference is seeking a traditionally Mideast response to questions sure to long outlive even a ''successful'' reconciliation conference.
In effect, the Lebanese rivals have been moving toward a ''declaration of principles'' that would finesse the need for immediate or detailed accord on issues that have, since 1975, proved keenly felt enough to kill for.
Indeed, the conference's first agreement of this sort was announced Wednesday - an acrobatically worded statement of Lebanon's identity within the Arab world. The Lebanese President and his supporters see the brief declaration as sufficiently nonspecific to cause them no problems. The opposition feels the statement is the first step toward specific demands - and perhaps even a way to claim ''abrogation'' of the Lebanon-Israel accord without actually saying so.
At a later stage, the theory goes, a gradual revival of at least some trust among leaders who hold one another responsible for murdering supporters or even relatives, would allow resolution of the specific questions concerning Lebanon's future. That trust may, by inches, have begun to appear in the first days of this conference.
The rivals still often refuse to shake hands, sometimes even to address each other directly. In the Wednesday morning session, Walid Jumblatt stormed out, accusing President Gemayel and Gemayel's father, also a delegate, of trying to muzzle him. But sources say Suleiman Franjieh, who is generally at odds with the Gemayels, had gradually become less cool toward them inside the talks.