Putting Lebanon together again will be difficult for President Gemayel under the best of circumstances. But it will be impossible to do so as long as Israeli , Syrian, and PLO forces remain there. Hence it can be counted a bit of year-end good news that direct talks are beginning between Lebanon and Israel on the withdrawal of Israeli troops.
There is little doubt that the mission of US envoy Philip Habib has had much to do with getting talks under way. Mr. Habib's determined efforts have also been reinforced by a strong letter earlier this month from President Reagan to Prime Minister Menachem Begin urging speedier Israeli action. It is now over six months since Israel invaded Lebanon, and the initial hope was that the Israelis - and the Syrians and remaining PLO fighters - as well as US and other peacekeeping troops would be out by the end of the year. That deadline is no longer viable - due in part to Israeli demands (insisting, for instance, that the withdrawal talks take place alternately in Jerusalem and Beirut). It is clear that the United States will have to keep up its active involvement - and its pressure - if negotiations are to bear fruit.
Having gone into Lebanon in part to remove the security threat to Israel posed by the PLO rockets and other weaponry in southern Lebanon, Israel will understandably demand firm arrangements to prevent such a threat in the future. Indeed it would be logical to establish a demilitarized zone in the south and to have it patrolled either by international peacekeeping forces or joint Israeli-Lebanese patrols. However, the concern in some quarters is that Israel wants some sort of permanent presence in southern Lebanon which will assure it access to the waters of the Litani River and that this will obstruct a withdrawal of all foreign troops. As long as the Israelis stay in Lebanon, the Syrians (and PLO) will, too, making for a de facto partition of the country.
That would be disastrous for Lebanon, struggling to recover its territorial integrity and establish a united government. It would also be a setback to the hopes for a resumption of talks on West Bank autonomy. Indeed Mr. Habib has reason to feel frustrated that he has been forced to devote all his time to Lebanon rather than focusing on the larger question of a Middle East peace. That seems to suit the interests of Mr. Begin, who wants to keep Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and is strongly opposed to President Reagan's peace plan for the territory. The longer he can drag out the issue of Israel's pullout from Lebanon, the longer he can delay autonomy negotiations (even assuming the Arabs finally agree to participate).
The delicate task for the US is therefore to make sure that the Lebanese negotiations go forward and are not permitted to derail parallel efforts to get West Bank talks under way as well. The withdrawal of Israeli, Syrian, and PLO forces would not likely end the violence and strife in Lebanon - as the current bitter fighting between the Christian Phalange and Druze communities indicate - but at least it would leave the Lebanese to themselves to work out their future. It is time for the foreign occupation to end.