Beirut — He is one of the legends of the Middle East, a power broker who has survived 46 years of intrigue and three assassination attempts. He is a crusty and somewhat authoritarian figure who built a political dynasty that saw two sons elected president of Lebanon. He is one of the original warlords who fought French colonial masters, Muslim rivals, and Christian competitors along his rise to power.
Pierre Gemayel, the founding father of Christian politics in Lebanon, may now be nearing the end of his long, controversial career. But he has just begun the biggest battle of his lifelong campaign to maintain Christian supremacy in Lebanon, which is now threatened by dissident Muslim and Druze demands for reform.
A member of parliament for 23 years, and a former holder of six Cabinet posts , Mr. Gemayel has long been a central figure in major political decisions in Lebanon. But it is his role as founder and leader of the Christian Phalange Party that has, in the past and perhaps again in future peace talks, given him near veto power - by either political or military means - over who should rule Lebanon, and how.
His consent will be vital if there is any hope for the proposed ''national reconciliation conference'' and efforts to end eight years of war.
To Maronite Christians, ''Shaikh Pierre'' is viewed as the one voice capable of preserving their hold on the last Christian-dominated nation in the Middle East. To most Druzes, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims, he is seen as the main obstacle in reconciliation efforts, since he has so often in the past balked at any scheme that allows the majority Muslims greater power at the expense of the minority Christians.
And both Arab and western mediators concede Gemayel is likely to be the toughest and most stalwart of the 12 men scheduled to meet around the negotiating table to find a means of compromise.
The ''grand old man of Christian politics'' was largely responsible for winning the edge for the Maronites in 1943, when all 17 of the religious sects in Lebanon agreed to the un-written ''National Covenant'' that divided up power on a confessional basis. And, many Lebanese of all religions now feel, he is determined not to be the man to give it all away.
''The Christians need guarantees,'' he explained in a voice that is no more now than a forced but determined whisper. ''You can not just say not to be afraid, you must do something. The six to five (ratio) does not provide advantages, but guarantees.''
Gemayel's Maronites originally were given the top jobs, and a ratio providing them with virtual control of medium and lower government ranks, because they were numerically the strongest. But 40 years later, they come in at a weak third in the Lebanese population count, according to diplomatic estimates, after the Shiite and Sunni communities.
To the Phalange leader, that does not mean the Maronites should relinquish control in the Arab world's only democracy. Exactly the opposite, he argued, since now more than ever the Christians need a sense of security, institutionalized means of ensuring they will not be overwhelmed by Muslims.
''In the Middle East, the Christian is a second class citizen. But not in Lebanon,'' he said. Thus, the 1943 covenant is more applicable than ever before. Gemayel believes in it so strongly that he calls the formula ''a guarantee of civilization.''
Although he is not opposed to a dialogue, he clearly intends to take a strong stand. ''I will be at this conference and the first question I will ask them all , simply and directly, is what kind of Lebanon do you want?
''I personally, who represent the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces (militia), which are forces that count in Lebanon, I want this formula of '43. Nothing is perfect in this world. But I am sure, 90 percent will want this formula, to study it, to reinforce it, but not to destroy it.''
But most of the key Muslim leaders, as well as key mediators in the peace efforts, feel otherwise. ''Let's face it, there will have to be a major realignment in this country if it is to survive,'' said one senior diplomat.
Ideally, the leading leftists - Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Shiite leader Nabih Berri - ultimately favor a pure democracy, removing all confessional aspects from government, letting the best men, of whatever faith, win. But when pressed, they concede they are willing to allow the Maronites to keep the presidency and other ''token'' posts, in exchange for compromise on the key ratio issue, at minimum providing a form of Muslim check on the Christian balance.
The danger to Lebanese reconciliation was reflected in Gemayel's strong-willed prediction about the conference: ''If anyone says anything against what I have said, we will reject it.''
The wily Christian leader has two means of backing up his position: the Phalange-led ''Lebanese Forces'' is by far the strongest militia in Lebanon, still capable of taking on any Muslim rival that does not have foreign help, according to western military analysts. And, his elder son, Amin, is president of Lebanon.
The unknown variable is whether the loyalties of President Amin Gemayel lie first with his leadership of all Lebanese, or with his influential and occasionally domineering father.