Snag in Lebanon talks: accord with Israel

The first full day of the Lebanon reconciliation conference quickly spotlighted the rival interests of two important, outside parties: Syria and the United States.

The main issue immediately involved is the future of last May's US-mediated troop withdrawal accord between Lebanon and Israel. This question - and opposition to the accord by Syria and various Lebanese politicians - overshadowed the first substantive day of the Geneva conference Tuesday.

The early going has also underscored abiding tension and mistrust among the rival Lebanese political-religious leaders grouped here after eight years of on-and-off civil war.

Indeed, one practical problem has been to keep some of the rivals from bringing weapons into the 18th-floor conference room in the luxurious Inter-Continental Hotel not far from the old League of Nations headquarters.

On Monday, one of the delegates reluctantly surrendered his handgun at the door. On Tuesday, a second delegate steadfastly refused to relinquish his gun and eventually won the point, Lebanese sources say.

But against this background, sources from various parties here stress that one not inconsiderable accomplishment of the conference so far is that it is being held at all - and that, despite its daunting problems, it has not immediately collapsed or been incapacitated by invective.

Nor, at least so far, have any of the rival Lebanese leaders called for outright abrogation of the troop withdrawal accord as a condition for further talks on other issues.

These issues are thorny in themselves and amount to a conflict between the country's traditionally dominant Maronite Christians and a swelling and increasingly militant Muslim population over how Lebanon should be governed. By Tuesday evening the hope of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel was to defer detailed discussion of the accord with Israel - signed by second-echelon officials but not yet by Gemayel - in hopes of getting some kind of declaration of principle on the overall future shape and policy of Lebanon to turn over to committees at the end of the week.

Lebanese sources said Tuesday that that goal was by no means assured, but that the rival parties were at least showing signs of willingness to discuss seriously the issues at hand. A Lebanese government spokesman told reporters late Tuesday that the conference delegates had agreed to concentrate first on the question of ''the identity of Lebanon'' within the region and in the world. This, at least for now, seemed to defer any head-on collision over the Lebanon-Israel agreement.

Lebanese sources said a key sign of the state of play could come within the next two days: whether the Saudi Arabian foreign minister went ahead with privately communicated plans to join the proceedings.

The Saudis and Syrians are both represented here as ''observers'' - the Syrians, at foreign minister level, but the Saudis so far only by a second-echelon ministry official. It was the Syrian foreign minister, Abdel Halil Khaddam, who thrust the issue of the Lebanon-Israel accord into the forefront of the conference with comments there Tuesday morning.

President Gemayel and Mr. Khaddam later conferred for some two hours - the first time a senior Syrian offical has formally met the President since the withdrawal agreement - in what Lebanese sources described as a sometimes tense encounter.

The fact of that meeting - and of Syrian observer status at what is formally a conference of Lebanon's internal warring communities - emphasized the importance of Syria to any eventual move toward agreement.

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