WASHINGTON - Remember Lebanon?
Hourly radio reports about incomprehensible gunfights across something called the Green Line? Nightly TV reports of horrific car bombings destroying downtown Beirut with Israeli jets finishing the job? Massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps?
But suddenly Lebanon dropped out of the international consciousness. The fighting died from a combination of combat fatigue, suppression of some militia groups by the Syrians and pressure from the Arab world, which came up with the Taif Accords and set the stage for an agreed truce. The Lebanese know something about surviving and even thriving in a very tough neighborhood.
Lebanon's new prime minister, Rafic Hariri, compares Lebanon to a rubber band. A tank can go over it, but it always seems to snap back into shape.
But he believes the process of Lebanese reconstruction and reconciliation would be shattered if the Palestinians were: a) denied the right of return to their homes in the West Bank and Israel and b) given permanent residency rights or Lebanese citizenship.
Under the shaky structure of the Lebanese system, constitutional power is shared among Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims (like Mr. Hariri). He says the addition of millions of Palestinians (mostly Sunnis) to the political mix would upset the balance of shared power that has brought a measure of peace to Lebanon.
"Remember," he says, "that is how the war began" in Lebanon in 1975. "We learned the hard way. All of them [the Palestinians] must leave." He pauses one beat, "Except my wife. She can stay."
Translation: Despite some assimilation, the Palestinian refugees remain a political and demographic Arab problem that must be taken into account by the Palestinian leadership, the Israelis or anybody else, including the Americans, in any Middle East agreement.
As a businessman and a politician, Mr. Hariri believes the key to peace in the Middle East is the resolution of the Palestinian refugee question as strongly as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes in expanding Jewish settlements through the West Bank.
The billionaire Lebanese businessman, built like an NFL linebacker, believes that peace between Israel and the Arab world can come only if there is a general Middle East settlement involving Lebanon and Syria as well as the Palestinians and Israel. In other words, an Arab consensus and not a piecemeal arrangement.
Mr. Hariri, who met in April with reporters in Washington, said that if the proposed deal that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians at last summer's Camp David summit had been a business deal, he would have snapped it up.
"The Palestinians would have been crazy to reject such a business deal," he said. "They were offered 97 percent of what they wanted."
But politics is not business, and he believes the Palestinians acted rationally in walking away from a political proposal that did not include the right of return for Palestinian refugees. There are 4.5 million of them - euphemistically called "temporary residents" - most still living in squalid camps in Lebanon and Syria.
Mr. Hariri considers his country's main problem to be not the risk of further conflict with Israel but the huge debt payments on high-interest loans that were taken out by previous Lebanese governments when the country was prostrate.
Fully 47 percent of the Lebanese budget goes to service the debt, and another 20 percent goes for national security, leaving only 34 percent for social services and the infrastructure.
That's the sort of business-like attitude that should appeal to a corporate-minded administration in Washington, but Mr. Hariri's visit to the Oval Office was practically a stealth operation, with no appearances with President Bush and no joint statements.
Jim Anderson is a Washington correspondent who has covered foreign policy for more than 30 years.