Lebanon survival and US credibility at stake in Gemayel-Reagan talks
There was no fanfare when President Amin Gemayel and his entourage left Beirut Monday, bound for crucial talks at the White House aimed at salvaging two things: Lebanon's very survival as a nation and the credibility of United States foreign policy.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Gemayel's departure was not even announced until after he had left. (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin canceled his visit to Washington, planned for next week, citing ''personal reasons.'' See Page 5.)
It was a stark contrast to his first widely celebrated trip after being elected last September, when it appeared Lebanon was about to be pulled out of eight years of chaos and the US had a virtual diplomatic monopoly in the Middle East.
Both have crumbled with time. And some Middle East analysts are now predicting it may be too late to save either one.
The basic problem is that neither the US nor the Gemayel government has been able to resolve the Lebanese crisis.
Meanwhile, events in Lebanon have overtaken the two key policymakers, who are mutually dependent: President Gemayel needs the US clout to help sort Lebanon out; President Reagan needs Lebanon to make his first foreign policy success.
Mr. Gemayel left behind a nation disintegrating on several fronts:
* Bitter fighting among the ''mountain people'' began yet again, the sounds of artillery shells echoing as far as Mr. Gemayel's presidential palace in the capital.
The current round of trouble goes back more than 10 months, but is based on an almost tribal feud of more than one century between Maronite Christians and Druzes, members of a secretive sect of Islam. Both moved to the Shouf Mountains centuries ago, but attempts by both sides to expand in the countryside overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean led to disputes.
The current clashes serve as a symbol of ongoing sectarian strife - among many other rivalries - and undercut the stability and nationalism needed to pull Lebanon together. Residents generally consider themselves Christians, or Sunni Muslims, or Druzes, before thinking of themselves as Lebanese.
* The strife also symbolizes the fears of the majority Muslims about the intentions of the minority Christians, who dominate the government. The fighting first broke out shortly after the Palestinian massacres last September, allegedly at the hands of Christian militiamen of the Phalange Party. Many Muslims, particularly Druzes and Shiites, are concerned about a massacre against them, especially if they try to hold on to their areas.
The massive Israeli military machine - which controls the Shouf - has not been able to stop the fighting, and it appears doubtful any other force could do it, either.
* For the first time since the Israeli invasion last summer, street fighting broke out in the heart of Beirut last week, when authorities tried to evict Shiite squatters from the abandoned Jewish quarter. Families refused to go, arguing they had no place else to live.
Shiite militiamen came to their aid, while the Lebanese Army was called in for what turned out to be its debut as a force able to restore law and order. Seven persons were killed and 21 injured in seven hours of fighting, as the Army pounded the area.