Muslims try to patch up Lebanon before Israel partially pulls out
Beirut — A consensus appears to be emerging among the three major Muslim sects in Lebanon about terms for reconciliation with the Christian-dominated government of President Amin Gemayel, according to key Sunni, Shiite and Druze politicians.
To end the threat of a new civil war, which one former Sunni prime minister described as "seeming to be just one day away from us, everyday," leading Muslim figures interviewed separately proposed similar solutions that basically included:
* Immediate formation of a "national unity Cabinet" bringing together all major players and opposition leeders of the current crisis.
* Agreement on a formula to redistribute power among rival sects, although not necessarily removing Maronite Cchristians from all top jobs, including the presidency.
* A push to win withdrawal of foreign forces. The hope is that, with some pro-Syria figures in government, Damascus would be more willing to discuss pulling out its forces and less afraid of long-term Israeli influence on the Christians.
* New elections for Parliament, which have not been held for more than one decade because of the series of conflicts.
Each of the Muslim leaders interviewed, however, expressed deep pessimism that the general platform would be accepted by the government, mainly because of pressure from the Christian Phalange Party to reject it. One Western diplomat suggested that some key Phalangists were "actively hostile" to the concept.
The idea of a national unity Cabinet has often been proposed during previous crises to pull together warring factions, but it has never been backed as seriously as it is now, the Muslim figures claimed.
The proposal was put forward Wednesday during lengthy taalks between Mr. Gemayel and a leading Sunni politician, who told the Lebanese President it was the "only solution." And Amal leader Nabih Berri, head of Lebanon's largest sect , said he has relayed the same message to the Baabda presidential palace through intermediaries.
Mr. Berri has also been delegated by Druze chief Walid Jumblatt to negotiate on behalf of the Druzes, whose attacks on the Lebanese Army and Beirut airport last week brought the crisis to a head.
The pessimism is also related to the time factor. Each of the men interviewed suggested that the reconciliation effort had less than three weeks to take effect, otherwise, they predicted major new clashes would erupt.
The pressure of time is related to the imminent partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the volatile Shouf mountains east of Beirut. The mountains have been the site of sporadic clashes between Druze and Christian militias for almost 11 months.
The Lebanese government wants its Army to fill the vacuum and try to end the fighting, but the Druzes say they will fight the Army if there is no reconciliation first.
But the atmosphere of reconciliation deteriorated Wednesday as nes spread thaat Isreali Minister of Defense Moshe Arens had entered Beirut -- the only area the Lebanese government now controls -- holding taks Tuesday with right-wing Phalange leaaders and reviewing a Phalange militia honor guard under the nose of the Lebanese government and Army.
Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan, a Sunni Muslim, boycotted his office Wednesday in protest against the fact the President and the army chief, both Maronite Chrisitans who were members of the Phalange before taking office last year, had not tried to block the visit.
Sa'eb Salaam, a Sunni who was prime minister six times, issued a statement describing talks between Mr. Arens and Phalange founder Pierre Gemayel, who is also the President's father, as a "tragedy and arrogance." He labeled the conduct of certain Maronites a "challenge to evey Lebanese citizen who had any hopes for the restoration of ational unity."
There are strong suspicions now among Muslim leaders of all sects that the government does not recognize the scope of the crisis. When asked what was going on behind the closed doors at Baabda, one Muslim participant replied "just talk." Then shaking his head and closing his eyes, he repeated "just talk."
Another Muslim figure commented: "Sheikh Amin (Gemayel) seems to think that with the US behind him, everything will get straightened out, everything will be all right in the end. But the Americans can't do very much on this one. If the President doesn't take the initiative, and soon, it could very will mean the end of Lebanon."
Mr. Berri is the angriest of the Muslim opposition figures. He said on Thursday that he had been warning the President since a key meeting in December of the urgent need for reconciliation, to permanently end eight years of discontent and subsequent strife.
And three months ago, the Shiite chief claimed Mr. Gemayel had accepted the principle of a national congress, but then refused to move, mainly because of pressure from the Phalange Party.
"Now we are late, very late," he said. "What they (the Christians) do not understand is that we do not want to deprive others of their rights. We have always been deprived. We know what it is like. We do not want revenge. We want democracy."
The new involvement of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which dispatched envoys to Lebanon after the latest crisis last week, has not helped dispel the mood of pessimism among Muslims.