Despite heavy fighting near Beirut Sunday night, a cease-fire was reported imminent in Lebanon. But the past three weeks of arduous negotiations for a cease-fire are only a prelude to even more difficult talks ahead.
Following a cease-fire, all sides including the government, according to Western diplomatic sources, will be represented at a national reconciliation conference. These sources say that the government will abide by decisions of the conference and the United States and Saudi Arabia will guarantee the government's acquiescence - if the decisions are unanimous.
Informed Western sources speculate that the reason Syria is now interested in talks - where it and Saudi Arabia will reportedly be observers - is that it hopes that these talks will lead to a wider regional peace conference where Syria will be able to negotiate to get back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
American firepower - including the recent arrival of the battleship New Jersey - has helped save the Lebanese Army from losing its status as the symbol of Lebanese unity, but the US military clout will not be able to convince fragmented Lebanese factions to find unity at a bargaining table.
This, in fact, may be a far harder battle than the Lebanese Army has fought at Souk al Gharb, the besieged village in the Shouf region southeast of Beirut.
''Lebanon has given cease-fires a bad name,'' quipped a Lebanese journalist only half in jest as the country waited for word that a cease-fire would finally come into effect.
This skepticism reflects a history of violated cease-fires by the several parties to this country's past eight years of civil strife. It also implies widespread recognition here that a cease-fire doesn't solve critical problems. It merely gives the country a respite to once again face them.
How long the new cease-fire will last following three weeks of ugly civil war featuring military intervention by both Syria and the US, will depend on two critical factors: Syrian intentions, and the ability of the feuding Lebanese factions to sit together and talk seriously about restructuring the government.
First, the country will have to surmount the shock of being able to see firsthand or via the media the extensive damage done to scores of villages and towns in the Shouf mountains, many of which may have been almost totally destroyed.
Many of these areas have been nearly impossible to reach because of the fighting but once they are open, the country can for the first time verify the claims of massacres by Christians and Druzes.
It will take strong leadership to quash the revulsion and bitterness this will cause.
''I was much more optimistic about reconciliation three weeks ago (before the mountain war),'' says former Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss. ''You can say that the wounds will be healed, but how can you live together after massacres?'' While such events have happened before in Lebanon, Mr. al-Hoss says, ''For the first time I feel smothered by this question.''
Once a means is found to police the cease-fire - at this writing no details of the hoped-for international observer force had been worked out - the Lebanese government will have to focus on a conference of national reconciliation. It will apparently take place in Saudi Arabia because Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt fears assassination by Christian militiamen in Beirut. The difficulties have already been previewed by the conflict over choosing parties for the table.
At this writing it appeared that the government would not be a formal participant in the talks in which the opposition National Salvation Front, the Shiite Amal movement, and the right-wing Christian Lebanese Front would take part. Syria and Saudi Arabia will take part as observers.
The government's role as informal arbiter was the result of Syrian and Lebanese Muslim opposition to the presence of Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan and Speaker of the Parliament Kamal Asaad. Their objection stemmed from these men's alleged lack of strong opposition to the government's May 17 accord with Israel, and to their perceived closeness to the government of Amin Gemayel.
According to Col. Akef Haidar, the No. 2 man in Amal's political bureau, the government subsequently decided it would parti- cipate only informally.
Whether the scheduled participants will sit together productively remains to be seen. Fadi Hayek, chief spokesman for the Lebanese Forces, the militia of the Christian Lebanese Front political movement, said bitterly on Friday that his movement would never sit at the same table with that of Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader and key member of the National Salvation Front. Druze and Christian militiamen faced each other in the Shouf and the Christians were defeated.
''Reconciliation is a mirage, just leading to a vicious circle,'' said Mr. Hayek, who argued that the entire problem of Lebanon was the responsibility of Syria. Whether the Lebanese Front will take the same line will only be known at the conference table.
Once the parties sit down at the table, Lebanon's relationship with Israel could prove one of the most complex issues.Syria and the National Salvation Front have declared their intention to have the May 17 agreement abrogated. But President Gemayel has already made a concession to the opposition by thus far abstaining from ratifying the agreement with the Jewish state.
The conference will also face the opposition's demand for an adequate share in power in Lebanon which they argue is disproportionately in the hands of the minority Maronite Christians.