Arabs turn to diplomacy in Lebanon

After a month of trying to get its act together on the Lebanese crisis, the Arab world is suddenly throwing itself into intensive diplomacy.

In an attempt to produce a united Arab front to deal with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon the foreign ministers of the Arab League have been meeting in Taif, the Saudi summer capital.

At the same time, separate but parallel Arab diplomatic efforts to buy further time for a diplomatic resolution over the impasse over west Beirut have also been under way.

These include exchanges between the United States and Egypt, joint French-Egyptian activity at the United Nations, the dispatching of an Arab foreign ministers' delegation to Moscow, and a Jordanian initiative in the UN Security Council, without direct reference to Israel, on behalf of the civilian population in Beirut.

Such moves take place against a background of:

* A further tightening of the Israeli noose on the Palestinians trapped in west Beirut - but still no all-out assault on them.

* And the Israeli Cabinet's rejection of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) latest proposal - channeled through US special envoy Philip C. Habib who is still in the area - for a face-saving formula involving PLO withdrawal from west Beirut.

The most important diplomatic exchanges are those between Israel and the PLO itself, conducted through Mr. Habib and Lebanese intermediaries, notably Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan and former Prime Minister Saeb Salam.

These were jolted at the weekend by Israel's decision to cut off water and electricity supplies from west Beirut and to close the entry points into west Beirut from east Beirut. Simultaneously, artillery and rocket exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians reached an intensity not experienced since the last cease-fire went into effect June 25.

Mr. Wazzan said he would not continue in his negotiating or mediating role unless the Israelis eased the blockade of west Beirut.

The big question is how long Israeli patience - or more specifically the patience of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon - will last. They are probably aware that the longer they delay an all-out assault on west Beirut because of external (particularly US) and internal pressures, the harder it will be for them to move in that direction should they decide to do so.

They must also take into account the international diplomatic offensive which the Arabs, under Saudi leadership, are now mounting.

The most significant pieces of groundwork in recent days for that offensive have been the separate visits to Taif of the youthful, hard-line Lebanese Maronite Christian leader, Bashir Gemayel, and of Syrian President Hafez Assad. They were invited to Taif to meet with a committee of Arab League foreign ministers which has been conferring there.

Mr. Gemayel and his Phalangist militia have worked in alliance with the Israelis both before and since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He shares the Israeli aim of ridding Lebanon of both the PLO and Syrian presence. But he has disappointed the Israelis by not refraining from direct military action to crush the PLO forces and leadership besieged in west Beirut.

Mr. Gemayel's tactics are dictated by his desire to be the next President of Lebanon when incumbent President Elias Sarkis's tenure expires in September. He knows that a long-term politically more secure route to the presidency is by Arab and Lebanese consensus - not by being thrust into it as an Israeli puppet by Israeli tanks and bayonets.

Implicit also in his maneuvering is his desire to be president of an unpartitioned Lebanon - in other words of a Lebanon within its present international borders. Israel keeps open the option of a partitioned Lebanon - one which would give it an exclusively Christian state on its northern border. The rest of the Arab world - apparently including Mr. Gemayel - is against this.

Mr. Gemayel is eligible for the presidency, since that office has by convention gone to a Maronite Christian since independence in 1943. This is balanced by the premiership going to a Sunni Muslim and the speakership of the legislature to a Shia Muslim.

On his return to Beirut from Taif, Mr. Gemayel was bitterly critical of the PLO. But his remarks should be seen in the context of his need to reassure the Israelis after his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Syrian President Assad was in Taif July 4-5. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon, with the losses this inflicted on Syrian troops in that country, has been particularly humiliating for him. His support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war has till now made him odd man out with other Arabs. But the Saudi invitation to him to come to Taif brings Mr. Assad back into the broad Arab picture and gives him a say in the future of both Lebanon and the PLO.

Simultaneously, but away from Taif, there has been another remarkable move in inter-Arab rapprochement. Egyptian President Mubarak has accepted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invitation to attend the nonaligned summit in the Iraqi capital Baghdad in September. Till now, Iraq had been one of the fiercest critics of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

As a result of the Taif discussions, an Arab foreign ministers' delegation has been dispatched to Moscow. It includes the foreign ministers of pro-US Morocco and of Kuwait, the only Arab Gulf state maintaining diplomatic relations with the USSR, as well as Farouk Kaddoumi, one of the PLO's top political leaders.

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