Both Gemayel, Begin face tough challenges
The latest events in Beirut confront the leaders of both Lebanon and Israel with grave challenges.Skip to next paragraph
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Amin Gemayel, elected Tuesday as Lebanon's next president following his younger brother Bashir's assassination last week, must prove that he has the strength and stature to unite his bitterly divided country.
To do so he must appeal successfully for Muslim support while retaining the backing of his family's own Phalange forces - some of which are violently anti-Muslim.
''Within the Lebanese Forces you have elements who were to the right of Bashir and wanted no compromise with Muslims,'' says one Lebanese analyst. ''They would take orders from Bashir but no one knows yet if Amin can make them do the same.''
In Beirut's tense post-massacre atmosphere, the arrival of the French-US-Italian peace force on Amin's inauguration day Sept. 23 and the phased Israeli withdrawal should give him and the shaky Lebanese Army an initial breathing spell.
As reaction to the same events in Beirut gathers momentum in Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government is facing its most severe crisis since taking office. Despite calls for an official inquiry into the Beirut massacre from the opposition Labor Party and from at least one Cabinet minister, together with an unprecedented plea from Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, the Cabinet Sept. 21 rejected setting up a formal inquiry.
This will undoubtedly add to the furor which is beginning to spread behind government lines. The Labor Party, relatively quiet during the war in Lebanon, has now called for the resignation of Mr. Begin. There are reports that the two government coalition partners, Tami and the National Religious Party, are considering leaving the government, which could bring it down.
Much of the fury both within and outside the government is over what is seen as a cover-up of the facts. Loyal Likud supporters castigated Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and chief of staff Rafael Eitan for failing to show up at a meeting of a key parliamentary committee to explain the massacre.
Meanwhile, overshadowed by the tumult over the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Palestinians in their refugee camps is the question of how much Israel lost from the earlier murder of President-elect Bashir Gemayel. His brother Amin is perceived as being closer to the Syrians. Nor has Amin had the contacts with the Israelis which his younger brother had as chief of the Phalange militias.
The Lebanese parliament elected Amin Gemayel president by 77 votes to three abstentions Sept. 21. Observers here said that this show of unanimity - in which Muslim and leftist leaders who had opposed Bashir endorsed Amin - was based primarily on the opposition's desire to present a united front against Israel's presence in west Beirut and Lebanon as well as against Israeli pressures for recognition from Lebanon.
Mr. Gemayal, a handsome man in dapper suits with thick dark hair, will be called on quickly to define his relations with Israel. Like his brother, he is expected to resist Israeli pressures to sign a peace treaty. This is in large part due to his desire to cement relations with Lebanese Muslims.
But it also marks a souring of relations between Israel and the Phalange. Many ordinary Lebanese are convinced, despite outraged Israeli denials, that Israel was in some way involved in the death of Bashir Gemayel because of his reluctance to sign a peace treaty. Unless ongoing internal Phalange investigations turn up the culprit, these suspicions are likely to continue to cloud Maronite-Israeli relations.
At time of writing, it was not clear whether Israeli troops would withdraw totally from west Beirut as called for by President Ronald Reagan in his speech Monday night. Israel had expressed its intention to take its forces out of Beirut, but no date had been given. However, the Israelis have been pulling out of positions in west Beirut over the past two days, turning them over to units of the Lebanese Army.
On west Beirut's main shopping street Tuesday, Israeli soldiers without weapons, some in civilian clothes, could be seen shopping on what they said was their last day before they pulled out of the western sector. One group of senior officers arrived by plane to lunch at the famous Commodore Hotel, where the foreign press corps stayed during the war and near which, during the siege of the city, Israeli shells fell.
Even with the anticipated deployment of the 2,200-man international force, the most critical domestic problem facing Amin Gemayel remains whether he can control the disparate Christian militias grouped into the ''Lebanese Forces''; and whether he can meld all Christian and Muslim armed militias into one Lebanese fighting force.
Mr. Gemayel, a lawyer and a member of parliament from the Maronite heartland, who also held a senior post in the Maronite Phalange Party founded by his father Pierre, is a very different man from his late brother.
Bashir was tough and dedicated to the Phalangist cause. A gunman, he was feared by Christian fighters whom he was certain he could control. Elbowed aside by his brother, Amin was seen by the family as a softer man.
''Bashir could do inhuman things,'' said a Lebanese Christian who knew them both. ''Amin is more sentimental, more conciliatory.'' A PLO military commander now in exile in Damascus, Syria, recalled how Amin had personally intervened to stop Christian militiamen from shooting him after they had just killed his three bodyguards.
Conversely, some Maronites considered Amin a traitor for building bridges to Muslim leaders before this was considered acceptable.