"It's like a mirage, these negotiations," said Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salem, pinned between a wall of the dining room in the Lebanese Embassy and the traffic flowing from the tantalizing buffet table. He scanned the plates streaming by. "You think you see something and . . ." His daughter, Nina, walked by, smiled, and popped a grape leaf from her plate into his mouth. He shrugged and munched.

"There were three mirages," he said of the continuing negotiations for Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon. "You think you reach water and you don't. We're at another mirage. We've reached an agreement. We've agreed upon an agreement. But we don't have an agreement."

So much for those late-night revelations Washington dinner parties are supposedly so famous for producing. At Lebanese Ambassador Khalil Itani's dinner party for Saeb Salam, the former prime minister of Lebanon, various conversations in English, Arabic and French wafted through the rooms crammed with about 200 guests.

Those in the Lebanese delegation--visiting here since Friday--and other members of Washington's Arabic community spoke all three. U.S. negotiator Philip C. Habib could be heard managing two. Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) and Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, stuck with English.

Despite some huddled chatting, there wasn't much to be heard--in English at least--about the state of negotiations, rumored to be "nearer to a solution."

Were they at least optimistic, Habib was asked.

"MR. SALAM," boomed Habib, passing the question, "are people optimistic?"

Salam beamed. "I'm very optimistic," he said. "I hope with Phil Habib going back now to Israel , he will justify my optimism."

"If you want to know anything," said Habib, "talk to that man there." He pointed to Nicholas Veliotes, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, sitting across the room at another table.

"The man you want," said Veliotes, "is Ambassador Habib." Informed of Habib's directive, Veliotes looked across the room, stricken. "I'm not going to say one more thing beyond what he says."

"George Shultz is trying to do this in a way to take care of everyone," said Percy, who met with the Lebanese delegation last Sunday at his home. "They seemed realistic--plenty of problems still."

At least the food was no problem--tangy grape leaves and meats and hummus, fruits and cheeses. "These things are always work," said Habib, filling his plate. "But the hospitality here is very gracious."

Habib was clearly the star of the evening in much the same way as the original shuttle diplomat, Henry Kissinger, used to be--besieged by well-wishers, kissed by friends, whispered at conspiratorially.

"Mr. Habib," said one smiling Arab woman shaking Habib's hand. "I hope you bring peace to Lebanon." He, in return, joked with the guests and shook all the hands.

In the foyer Habib paused for more last-minute conversations, then looked around for his coat.

"I've got your coat," said Veliotes, toting several of them.

"Oh," said Habib, grinning approvingly. "You get my coat, you drive me around, and I don't pay you a thing."

"Not a thing," said Veliotes.