AN ODD MINUET was completed during the visit to Washington of Israel's foreign and defense ministers. The Israelis had made plain their intent to redeploy in Lebanon, in order to reduce their casualties and make their occupation more palatable at home, in the absence of a parallel complete withdrawal by Syria. This aroused the Americans to ensure that such a partial withdrawal would be both undertaken and seen merely as the first stage in the removal of all Israeli troops. So the Israelis had to disavow an intent--to redeploy and stay on permanently--that they insisted they never harbored. The Americans had to dispel the suspicion that they preferred Israel to stay in place rather than start withdrawing.

Otherwise, things are bad in Lebanon. The Lebanese, seeing the outside momentum toward a Lebanon solution fade, seem to be turning to each other with guns in hand. The effort to dislodge the Syrians, to the extent that it is not simply drifting into a flight from responsibility, is bogged down in argument over what if anything might lead President Hafez Assad to change his mind and make good on his earlier promise to go home. The PLO power struggle continues, making it impractical and impossible for others to take an active interest in the Palestinian question; the Israelis are using the interval to colonize further the West Bank. American diplomacy has been reduced to a series of comings and goings meant to show the United States still cares about the restoration of Lebanon's sovereignty.

In the circumstances, Israel's redeployment is the best thing going. Whether it will quiet the Israeli debate about the invasion and occupation of Lebanon is far from certain, since a certain level of casualties is to be expected in the south, and Israel's troops will remain eyeball-to-eyeball with Syria's in the east. The redeployment, however, will force upon Lebanon the cruel but necessary requirement to extend the area for which it takes direct responsibility. It appears there will be a need to expand the multinational force as Israeli troops depart the strife-ridden Chouf mountains south of Beirut. But the Lebanese army will have to take over the main task of preserving order there.

The difficulties are huge. The redeeming political purpose of the exercise, however, lies here: a Lebanese government that had demonstrated its will and capacity to push its zone of control out from Beirut into the Chouf would unquestionably be in a better position to reclaim the other now-occupied parts of the country.