Political efforts to salvage Lebanon and its divided capital appeared to reach an eerie impasse Thursday, the fourth day of total silence from both the government of President Amin Gemayel and the American mediating team headed by special envoy Donald Rumsfeld.
''The country can't stand this peculiar status quo much longer,'' a Western envoy predicted, ''or a lot of people who have tried to remain neutral will be forced to take a stand. That includes the army,'' which has now lost an estimated 40 percent of its strength from defections.
''If something positive does not happen soon, then what little (infrastructure) remains will certainly crumble, meaning total chaos,'' he said.
A pivotal Muslim politician who used to be in almost daily telephone contact with Mr. Gemayel said he had not heard a single word since the crisis began last weekend. Asked what he thought was going on in Mr. Gemayel's thinking, he responded sadly: ''A void,'' noting that the President had so alienated leaders of various factions that he now stood alone.
With each day that passes without a sign of hope, or even a simple communique about negotiatons, the feeling grows stronger in the capital that President Gemayel will indeed have to meet the opposition's demand that he step down as the price for a return to normality.
''After all of this, he seems a ridiculous figure,'' a diplomat said.
Foreign Minster Elie Salam was scheduled to return from Saudi Arabia Thursday , where he was dispatched to appeal to Riyadh to revive mediation efforts. But the Saudis are clearly not hopeful, for diplomats from their Beirut embassy were evacuated early Thursday after gaining guarantees of safe passage from the militias now controlling west Beirut. Indeed there is some diplomatic speculation that the Saudis also may feel it is time to scrap Mr. Gemayel in favor of a cleaner political figure who could start afresh.
The plans announced by the British and Italian embassies to evacuate their nationals from west Beirut added to the general pessimism about Lebanon's future.
The American naval fleet's firing Wednesday and Thursday at targets behind Syrian lines has alarmed foreigners, who fear they may be targets of retaliation. Damascus radio added to the tension, quoting Druze official Marwan Hamadeh as warning that any US offensive would put the interests of the four multinational-force (MNF) countries, particularly the Americans, in jeopardy.
In light of the political impasse, the possibility of a broader conflict seemed to be growing, according to MNF sources.
But the US Embassy still refused to offer assistance to the 2,500 Americans estimated to be caught in west Beirut. ''We are following events carefully with the possibility in mind of removing additional embassy staff and facilitating departure of nonofficial Americans. We do not regard this step as justified at this time, but we will continue to monitor the situation,'' explained a communique issued to reporters who have been badgering US diplomats for days.
The issue of US assistance is becoming heated, since the only advice given so far is to leave by commercial means - in a country without an airport or operating port, with west Beirut sealed off except for military helicopters. Indeed, it is almost impossible to even reach the US compound.
Meanwhile, another 50 US diplomatic personnel and dependents departed during the third day of evacuation. Maj. Dennis Brooks, a Marine spokesman, issued a statement Thursday that he was ''sure an evacuation plan was being worked on,'' which he later admitted was an attempt to get the idea across to Washington that it should seriously consider the civilian issue in light of plans to draw back both the marines and diplomatic personnel.
However, there was still no sign of an immediate withdrawal at the US position around Beirut International Airport, except for a run on the local commissary. Marine T-shirts, miniature Lebanese flags, and stickers asking, ''Have you hugged a Beirut vet today?'' are almost sold out.
As many troops anticipated, Thursday was generally a quiet day, with no retaliation against the Marine contingent after the New Jersey fired. ''It's a very comforting feeling when the New Jersey fires,'' Major Brooks said, ''because then no one is firing at us. And afterwards, it's usually quiet, and it has been today.''
But a Western military source suggested that the Syrians and their Lebanese Muslim allies may also be regrouping and moving their positions in the surrounding Shouf mountains, since their guns had been traced by the US. ''It's not over,'' he suggested.