Israel sinking into Lebanese political morass

Lebanon is beginning to trap Israel in the confusing morass of its ethno-religious-tribal politics.

Fearing this, the Israeli government July 1 was expected to act quickly to attempt to conquer western Beirut and push Syrian and Palestinian forces out of the country.

''The political process is getting too drawn out,'' complained Israeli Col. Paul Kader to correspondents in Israeli-held Baabda July 1. His mounting impatience with the political discussions aimed at averting an Israeli assault on Palestinians in west Beirut was echoed by Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a conversation the same day with US envoy Morris Draper.

Already Israel has had to face one of the many confounding factional rivalries that have long plagued Lebanon. This time it was the fighting behind Israeli lines between Maronite Christian Phalangists and Druze in the Shouf region. The two groups (the former represented politically by the Lebanese Front , the latter by the National Movement) are bitter enemies for political and religious reasons that go back several centuries.

Yet both groups are being cultivated by the conquering Israelis. The Druze are important because of the large, somewhat sympathetic-to-Israel Druze population in the newly annexed Golan Heights. The Maronites are important because of the close cooperation of the Phalange in the current war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrians. In addition, the Israelis calculate that the Phalange will be the strongest postwar force in Lebanon - a force with which Israel might make a Camp David-style peace.

Israeli soldiers, like the Syrians who entered Lebanon in 1976 under Arab League mandate, now find themselves having to police the two antagonists. And these are only two of the 150-odd factions in this kaleidoscope country.

Israel must decide whether to sort out or leave alone these tribal and religious rivalries - regardless of the resolution of the current battle against the PLO and the Syrians.

Below the turmoil of the month-long Israeli invasion, lies the never concluded Lebanese civil war. There is a complex set of rivalries, sometimes sectarian, sometimes ethnic, sometimes, in gangland fashion, over territory. It is Christian-Muslim, rightist-leftist, rich-poor, and all the in between stripes.

These rivalries have continued to jockey for position in the civil war as the Israeli Army has rolled through the country. The Phalange is moving into hill villages it tried, unsuccessfully, to dominate in 1976. Phalangists are also resurrecting the issue that sparked the civil war: The idea of getting rid of all the Palestinians, the PLO as well as the 600,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.

Phalange Party founder Pierre Gemayel June 30 said, ''Lebanon cannot support 700,000 Palestinians'' even if the PLO departs. Rival Maronite leader and former President Suleiman Franjieh began his move away from an alliance with Syria and the PLO, saying that the three weeks of negotiations that followed the Israeli invasion were part of ''an American plot to resettle Palestinians in Lebanon.''

Shiite leader Nabih Berri manuevered away from the PLO, encouraging it to lay down its weapons. It was a move the PLO had so far rejected July 1. Druze and National Movement leader Walid Jumblatt likewise moved away from the PLO, though he waffled somewhat.

Although they are perhaps more politically sophisticated than the Syrian occupiers before them, the Israeli soldiers still have but a limited amount of good will to play on in this country. Time, petty incidents, and a local penchant for corruption may eventually make the Israeli Army much less welcome.

''You know,'' a Lebanese civil servant told the Monitor, ''no occupation army is loved for very long.''

Knowledge of this may make Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin act to try to resolve the surface-level Lebanese crisis sooner rather than later.

If, as seems likely, the Phalange comes out of this in the strongest political and military positions, Phalange chief Bashir Gemayel may be the next president (a successor to Elias Sarkis must be chosen by the parliament no later than Sept. 22). But Mr. Gemayel undoubtedly will have to mend fences with at least some of the other factions in the country.

Phalange feelers have been going out for some months to the populous Shiite community, primarily represented by Mr. Berri's Amal Movement. A prominent Israeli Arabist who traveled to east Beirut last week said he believes that an alliance can be formulated between the Maronites and Shiites - rich and poor, northern and southern Lebanon. This Israeli, who has extensive contacts in the Israeli military and the Begin Cabinet, said it was in Israel's interest as well as the Phalange's to ally with Shia Muslims in the Middle East to counterbalance the Sunni Arabs who control most Arab nations.

Confident the Phalange is going to be the preeminent power in Lebanon soon, Mr. Gemayel June 30 called for an American ''Marshall Plan'' to rebuild Lebanon, revision of the country's constitution, and an end to ''warlord'' politics, which he admitted the Phalange had practiced along with other factions in the past.

All of that, of course, awaited the outcome of what were the questions of moment July 1: The fate of the PLO in Lebanon, the extent to which Israel would go militarily to drive the PLO and the Syrian Army from the country, the very survival of many of the residents of this fractured, war-torn country in the days ahead.

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