`UNTIL now,'' the Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez told reporters in Beirut late Sept. 6, ``no progress has been made in our talks with Israel. A certain state of immobility has characterized the talks so far.''
Mr. Bouez's pessimistic assessment of progress in the Middle East peace negotiations contrasts with the mood of optimism surrounding discussions between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bouez was speaking after a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. Syria and Lebanon have distanced themselves from the Israeli-Palestinian deal for limited Palestinian autonomy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
``Only a full and unconditional hand-over of Arab territory in compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions will guarantee secure and lasting peace in the region,'' a commentator on state-controlled Damascus radio said Sept. 6.
Although the Lebanese government operates in the shadow of the Syrian authorities, its pessimism about the peace process overall and negative attitude toward the pending agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel reflect the popular mood in the country. In a week-long visit to Lebanon, this reporter heard little enthusiasm about the deal.
Many of Lebanon's fears about the PLO-Israeli deal relate to the fate of the estimated 300,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon. Under the terms of the PLO-Israeli agreement, talks about refugees moving to the new Palestinian entity are not scheduled to begin for at least two years.
``The Lebanese have two concerns,'' a Western diplomat in Beirut says. ``They want to see the Israelis withdraw right away from all of southern Lebanon, and they want assurances that the peace process will result in the establishment of a Palestinian state which will be capable of taking all refugees.''
The Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon fled from their homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948. The towns and villages these refugees fled are now part of Israel proper and are not part of the peace negotiations.
The authorities in Beirut are adamant, though, that the homeless Palestinians in Lebanon will have to leave once a peace settlement has been reached.
``Under no circumstances whatsoever,'' the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri said Sept. 4, ``will we accept the permanent settlement of a part of the Palestinian people on our territory. Lebanon is for the Lebanese, Palestine is for the Palestinians.''
The presence of Palestinian refugees is complicated by another factor. According to Ibrahim al-Amin, a political commentator for the Beirut daily newspaper As-Safir, ``other countries embrace either supporters of the Arafat leadership or opponents of it, while Lebanon plays host to both sides.''
This raises the prospects of the current fierce debate among Palestinians exploding into violence. Emotions on the subject of limited autonomy for the Gaza Strip are running high.
``If Yasser Arafat signs this deal with Israel, I will personally make it my mission to kill him,'' says Ibrahim, a low-salaried office helper in Beirut. ``Has all the suffering and hardship been just for this - limited autonomy?''
Refugees are concerned that while Israel might be prepared to grant autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, there is no guarantee that the Palestinians will make any more gains.
``The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,'' a Western diplomat comments, ``feel themselves to be at the bottom of the heap. Their plight does not even enter the agenda for another two years.''
The Borj al-Barajneh refugee camp in the slums of southern Beirut, like all others in Lebanon, bears the scars of many years of warfare, adding to the squalor of the cramped conditions. Anis was born a refugee in Lebanon. ``We feel abandoned,'' he says. ``The Lebanese don't want us here, and Yasser Arafat is concerned only with a deal to end the crisis in the PLO and get the Saudis to start paying him again.''
Fathi, an electrician, is a supporter of Arafat. But he is unenthusiastic about the current deal being concluded with Israel because it leaves too many questions unanswered.
``Take a look around,'' he says, ``do you see people dancing for joy? We don't see much in the agreement for us.''