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Beirut irony: now that pact is torn up, reforms look easy

By Robin WrightSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1984



Beirut

The Lebanese deadlock has been broken. In a major shift in policy the government of President Amin Gemayel announced Monday that it had decided to abrogate the May 17 accord signed last year with Israel. The way is now open for national reconciliation talks.

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In effect, Lebanon has declared its intention to pursue a policy that will bring it back into the Arab camp. It has officially abandoned the course of action directed by the United States over the past 17 months aimed at cementing peace between Lebanon and Israel. The Cabinet statement coincided with an unfamiliar silence along battle lines in and around Beirut, ruptured only occasionally by sniper and rocket fire.

The May 17 pact, which calls for Israel to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon, was the major obstacle in the way of resuming the dialogue between the Christian minority that dominates government and the Muslim majority. The various factions have been at war for nine years over the issue of more equitable power-sharing. The conference of Lebanon's government and major warlords, which disbanded last year without a breakthrough, is expected to reconvene in Geneva within a week.

Ironically, the issue of reforms may be more straightforward, compared with the dispute over the May 17 pact, because Christians and Muslims are not that far apart on a basic program of change. And during their summit last week, Mr. Gemayel and Syrian President Hafez Assad reportedly agreed on a rough model that will alter the 1943 unwritten ''national covenant'' so that parliamentary seats and government jobs among Christians and Muslims are divided 50-50, rather than the current 6-to-5 ratio that favors the Christians.

Muslims objected to the May 17 pact because it would have allowed Israel to maintain a small military presence after withdrawal of its estimated 25,000 troops and left the door open to eventual formal diplomatic ties. But underlying this issue has been a dispute over the country's identity. Although Lebanon was once considered the bridge between East and West, Muslims have increasingly demanded that the country's orientation be toward the East, while Christians have traditionally looked to the West.

The abrogation, while asserting Lebanon's Arab links, is also a major victory for Mr. Assad, whose persistent pressure and backing of Lebanon's opposition groups led Mr. Gemayel to defy US advice. His summit with Gemayel was the turning point.

The Lebanese Cabinet of Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan, which resigned a month ago, was called back into session to debate the May 17 pact. A Cabinet official said that the decision to cancel it was coupled with a vote to seek withdrawal of Israeli troops by offering alternative guarantees that Lebanon would prevent Palestinian and other anti-Israeli groups from penetrating the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The final political fallout of Monday's decision has not yet been assessed. But the abrogation does put a major obstacle in the way of withdrawing the roughly 70,000 foreign troops that occupy 70 percent of Lebanon.

Mixed signals have been coming out of Israel over the past few days. On Sunday, Chief of Staff Moshe Levy called for an end to demands that the Israeli Army withdraw speedily from Lebanon. He said the situation called for patience and endurance, indicating that the Israeli military does not favor phased pullbacks.

The Israeli commitment to hold on in Lebanon was reflected in part Monday by two bombing raids in the mountains east of Beirut against alleged ''terrorist bases.'' The raids were apparently in retaliation for two attacks against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon Sunday.

Yet the Jerusalem Post said Monday that government sources had shown a willingness to negotiate new arrangements with Lebanon to replace the May 17 accord, or at least to examine the options together.