Time is running out for Lebanon as it flounders without a sense of political direction. Increasingly, the military option is overtaking negotiation as the major means of ending the deadlock between President Amin Gemayel and his Syrian-backed opponents.
Western military sources predict that the strategic hill town of Souk al Gharb will fall if the Druze militia launches a much-anticipated offensive. This town, which overlooks Beirut, serves as a gateway to government offices in Christian east Beirut and is the Lebanese Army's last stronghold outside the capital. The town came under heavy artillery bombardment over the weekend.
Meanwhile, there is no peace plan on the table. A disputed eight- point plan for peace was rejected both by Syria and its Lebanese allies after confused mediation by the Saudis. One Saudi official said his country ''has not presented a plan. (The government) has been trying, and will continue to try, to bridge the views between various parties.''
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah was scheduled to arrive in Damascus Monday for a two-day visit with Syrian leaders and Lebanese opposition groups. But the Saudis were reported by diplomatic sources to be ''frustrated and angered'' by the intransigence on all sides following a weekend visit to Syria by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
The desperate Lebanese government, aware that the fall of Souk al Gharb would totally expose it politically and militarily, dispatched Foreign Minister Elie Salam and national security adviser Wadie Haddad to the United States for talks on the intentions of the Reagan administration. President Gemayel is reportedly no longer convinced that Washington supports Lebanon.
The sense of abandonment was deepened Monday by the withdrawal of the Italian contingent of the multinational force and preparations by the US Marines for their pullback to Sixth Fleet ships offshore.
In Sabra and Shatila, sites of the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees, many survivors openly wept as the 1,300 Italian troops rolled out. Joint patrols of the Amal Shiite Muslim militia and Lebanese Army defectors were immediately established in the camps. The Palestinian civilians fear, however, that the presence of the opposition forces will only make them targets again.
The Italians originally had hoped to wait until United Nations troops could replace them, but the schedule was moved up after the fall of west Beirut earlier this month. A high-ranking UN official visited Beirut over the weekend for talks about possible deployment. But the government is reportedly not enthusiastic about such an option for fear that it would lead to de facto partitioning. The UN presence in Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish sectors is the prime example.
The sense of helplessness was also heightened Sunday, when Israeli warplanes launched air strikes against positions south and east of the capital. The strikes reflected how the various parties to the Lebanese crisis are taking unilateral decisions in the absence of any visible political progress.
The strike along the southern coast was significant because the Israelis claim their targets were Palestinian encampments in areas taken by the Druze just last week. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens said Sunday that the Palestine Liberation Organization ''is coming back in force in Lebanon,'' adding that it had infiltrated lines held by Druze and Shiite militias.
Recent reports have cited a renewed Palestinian presence, although reporters at the coastal town of Naameh found no indication of PLO involvement. The only foreigners were Bangladeshis working at a wood mill, many of whom were injured in the bombing.
The Shiite Amal militia has been vehemently opposed to allowing the PLO back into Beirut, to the point of providing repeated guarantees to the US and other Western embassies. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt repeated over the weekend that Palestinians would not be allowed to reenter Beirut for military operations.
But diplomats are concerned that Syria may try to force its allies to accept PLO fighters, mainly those opposed to chairman Yasser Arafat, as a condition for continued supplies of arms. The sources suggested that this would be a major boost for the Syrian-backed Palestinian rebels, as well as a sign to Israel that its 1982 invasion of Lebanon accomplished little.
Damascus has increasingly become the center of activity, with both Mr. Jumblatt and Amal chief Nabih Berri visiting there for talks with President Hafez Assad and other leaders Sunday and Monday. Foreign and Lebanese sources have expressed concern about the differences between the two men over the future course of action, and control of west Beirut.
Mr. Berri repeated Saturday that he opposes a military push and partition of Lebanon. The Druze, however, have said that a final thrust at Souk al Gharb is necessary to win concessions from Gemayel. Druze gunmen openly talk about their mobilization for an attack.
But the leaders of the two most powerful opposition groups do agree on the resignation of the President as a condition for peace. Berri, who was earlier thought to have backed down from the demand, twice over the weekend said Gemayel should step down ''so that we can bring in a new Maronite (Christian) president who would be able to break the deadlock.''
Earlier, Lebanese from all factions had feared a change in leadership might spark even more tension and conflict. Now the lack of progress has led many to concede that ''it may be time,'' as one Maronite businessman said. At the beginning of the crisis, the main topic of conversation centered on whether Gemayel could survive. Now it centers on who his successor might be.