In Lebanon, perspective is always important. Last summer, as Beirut was repeatedly savaged by artillery and bombs, the flashes and smoke seeming at times to engulf the entire city, I would listen to Lebanese who, like me, were witnessing this spectacle.
Unlike me, they were seeing their homes, the boulevards they knew from childhood, the very skyline of their city, ablaze and crumbling. Their streets were filled with Israeli tanks, their buildings occupied by beleaguered guerrillas, their friends and families suffering.
Some Lebanese believed this was the firestorm that heralded the permanent dismemberment of Lebanon, cutting it into zones of influence for other powers and irrevocably Balkanizing it in ways predicted since its borders were arbitrarily drawn up by the French in 1920.
Some believed the opposite and actually cheered as Israeli bombs put ever more pressure on the Palestine Liberation Organization in west Beirut. To them this was necessary - Israel being the lesser of two evils - to give Lebanon back its sovereignty and reestablish Christian-rightist dominance in alliance with Israel.
Many others saw this as the latest, most violent round in an unending conflict. The kaleidoscopic pieces of Lebanon were being shaken fiercely, only to rearrange themselves into another configuration of fragments, never to be united into a whole. They joked that the Israeli Army would become just another force bogged down in the quagmire of Lebanon.
Depending on one's perspective, any of these views might be true. Nine months after that war began, Lebanon is not dismembered, at least not yet.
Neither is it in control of its own destiny. It still exists in a political netherworld - not quite sovereign, not quite overrun, beset by anarchy, experiencing moments of peace and moments of brutality.
Violence is an everyday experience, no longer in Beirut so much but certainly elsewhere in the country. Syria and the PLO occupy the Bekaa Valley and the Tripoli district. Israel holds everything from the border to Beirut.
The stronger factions are still armed and vengeful, still fighting, still virtual states-within-the-state: Maronite Phalangists from Beirut to Byblos; Druze in the southern Shouf Mountains; pro- and anti-Syrian militias in Tripoli; Shiites, Palestinians, and even some Iranians in the Bekaa.
And trying to protect small pockets of the country are the Americans, French, and Italians of the multinational force and the Irish, Dutch, Fiji Islanders, French, and Norwegians of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
The more things have changed in Lebanon since the Israeli invasion, the more they have remained the same.
But there is some reason for hope early in 1983. Lebanese and Israeli officials have begun meetings to try to arrange the pullout of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. Syria and the PLO have indicated their willingness to leave if Israel will do likewise; the PLO says it needs only a Lebanese guarantee of security for Palestinian refugees in the country and it will pull out altogether.
The Lebanese central government under Amin Gemayel enjoys popular backing from both left and right and is consolidating its hold over the Beirut area. With American support, the shattered Lebanese Army is being strengthened, with hopes of boosting it in size from 30,000 to 60,000.
Much of Beirut and southern Lebanon is at peace, relatively speaking, and rebuilding is proceeding.
What seems to be needed, however, is a major diplomatic breakthrough that seals the removal of foreign forces from Lebanon. For while Lebanese-Israeli meetings are taking place, the aims of the two parties are widely divergent. Lebanon wants Israel simply to withdraw in exchange for mild guarantees of nonbelligerence, along the lines of the 1949 Israeli-Lebanese armistice agreement. Israel wants the price to be something bordering on a full-fledged peace treaty with Lebanon, similar to the 1978 Camp David treaty with Egypt.
The United States is trying to find common ground, knowing that a full peace treaty with Israel would probably aggravate divisions in Lebanon, jeopardize the flow of Saudi Arabian money needed to rebuild the country, and cause Syria and the PLO to react negatively, perhaps to dig in their heels. But the Reagan administration also knows that Israel holds most of the cards, being the supreme regional power and having in its possession southern Lebanon.
If the Israeli, PLO, and Syrian forces remain in Lebanon much longer, not only would the appearance of permanence be lent to Lebanon's dismemberment but also war would be a constant threat, with Lebanon the convenient battleground.
Thus, the diplomats know it is essential that a pullback get under way soon.
Already there are troubling signs of danger ahead. Intense pro- and anti-Syrian fighting in Tripoli has caused widespread suffering. Elsewhere, Phalangist-Druze warfare has made the central mountains unsafe.
In late December this fighting spread to Khalde, on the outskirts of Beirut (the scene of the first Lebanese-Israeli meeting), threatening even the tenuous peace that Beirut has enjoyed since September. In early January, the Lebanese Army conducted sweeps of southern Beirut because of evident threats to security. And scarcely a day goes by without Israeli soldiers being attacked in southern Lebanon.
Even more troubling, in early January Israeli officials seemed to be building a case against Syria, possibly as a prelude to a ''preemptive'' strike on Syrian-occupied Lebanon or as part of an argument to justify a future fight with Syria. Israeli military officials claimed they had uncovered new Soviet-supplied SAM-5 missiles inside Syria and that the anti-aircraft weapons were a threat to Israel.
Just as Israel seized on the pretext of the attempted assassination of its ambassador to London as casus belli for its invasion of Lebanon, a missile fired on an Israeli jet or a major attack on Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon could ignite a new Israeli-Syrian war.
To keep this from happening, American diplomacy has focused in particular on troop withdrawal - and in general on regional stabilization.
The Reagan administration is still far from exerting the kind of pressure on Israel to compromise that it seems capable of, given the $3 billion a year in aid the US gives that country. Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, US-Israeli relations have grown more noticeably chilly, but they are still too cozy as far as the PLO, Syria, and key Arab moderates such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are concerned.
The first rushes from historians of 1982 were saddling the United States with a great deal of the blame for Israel's invasion of Lebanon and for Israel's dominance over the entire Middle East. The conservative Middle East Economic Digest, for instance, noted in a year-end article that ''the US attitude - some would call it connivance - leaves little room for trust in American policy toward the Arabs.''
Perhaps this is just a sign of the discontent felt throughout the region, based on the weakness and divisiveness of the Arab bloc, on Israel's strength and intransigence, and on the (at least momentary) decline in importance of Arab oil to the West. At any rate, nascent anti-Americanism could grow stronger if there is no sense of movement on the peace front.
And at present the peace front seems bogged down. Camp David negotiations on Palestinian autonomy have been suspended by Egypt. The Sept. 1 Reagan plan (a plan designed to give West Bank and Gaza Palestinians self-rule ''in association with Jordan'') has not enlisted Arab backing or Israeli government cooperation. The Sept. 9 Fez statement of the Arab League is not acceptable to the US or Israel and seems at best to be an Arab position paper, not a set plan.
In the absence of forward movement in the Middle East, deterioration can set in - and with it the opportunity for Soviet influence grows. Under Yuri Andropov , the Soviet Union already has endorsed the Fez statement. Mr. Andropov could perhaps begin to batter the West with new ''peace initiatives'' for the Middle East as he has done on the nuclear weapons issues. And if Mr. Andropov can devise a way of decreasing the Soviet profile in Afghanistan - perhaps by opening talks with Pakistan - he would reduce one of the main hindrances to warmer Arab-Soviet relations.
Former National Security Council member William Quandt has observed that if the Reagan initiative loses steam, one might anticipate ''a greater degree of Soviet diplomatic initiatives and attempts to strengthen bilateral relations, to play on the disillusionment that will result from the failure of the Reagan initiative.''
''And from what one knows about the new leadership of the Soviet Union,'' he added, ''one should not underestimate them.''
But there is still a widespread belief among Arabs that if the US does not usually act in their interest, it nevertheless is the superpower with the most influence in the region. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat accordingly did not reject the Reagan plan outright. Instead he noted that it had ''some positive aspects.''
In late 1982 Mr. Arafat worked hard to improve relations with Jordan, the key state in the Reagan plan. Though Mr. Arafat maintains that Jordan still has not been authorized to act in behalf of the PLO, leading Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Arab world contend that Jordan is the best available conduit for PLO messages to Washington.
What those messages might say in 1983 is another matter. Because the radical, Damascus-based factions of the PLO can veto any moves that verge on recognition of Israel's right to exist, it is unlikely the PLO will have anything important to tell Washington in the near future.
Arab moderates are trying to convince PLO members now is the time to propose, at a minimum, simultaneous recognition between Israel and the PLO. This comes with warnings that if the PLO does not quit temporizing, Israel will lock the West Bank and Gaza ever tighter in its grip and the US will become frozen in diplomatic inaction coinciding with the 1984 presidential race.
Farther afield, constantly drawing away Arab attention from Lebanon and the PLO cause, is the costly, unending war between Iran and Iraq. A new Iranian push next spring would send a shiver through the Arab world.
For the Palestinians, the Lebanese, and the Arabs in general, time seems of the essence. The first step will have to be in the negotiations to achieve removal of foreign forces from Lebanon. That will be the litmus test, showing whether Lebanon can regain its sovereignty, whether Israel is willing to give up newly conquered territory, and whether Washington and its allies can guarantee security all around.
If troop withdrawal talks fail - or if they drag on too long - a broader Arab-Israeli peace is in trouble. If they succeed, then at least the road ahead is open.