If it is to survive, Lebanon is in need of reform. This increasingly widespread recognition may help save the United States from a hopeless policy of supporting an untenable status quo.
And if Lebanon is to survive, it needs de facto neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Lebanon maintained a form of neutrality from the creation of Israel in 1948 to the 1967 ''six-day war.''
As a member of the Arab League, Lebanon closed its border with Israel to normal traffic and proclaimed an official state of belligerency.
But the Lebanese-Israeli border was the quietest in the area and no hostile armed forces established operations on Lebanese soil. Lebanon achieved de facto neutrality by maintaining political ties to the Arab world while avoiding military action against Israel. With the advent of the Palestinian resistance movement after the 1967 war, however, Lebanon became a PLO base and a target of Israeli attack.
Ironically, the last party to try to reestablish Lebanon's neutrality was Syria, now cast by the Reagan administration as the villain in the Lebanese tragedy. Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war in 1976, with American blessing and encouragement, to prevent a victory by Lebanese factions allied with the PLO. The Syrians feared that a left-leaning Lebanese government indebted to the PLO would drag Lebanon and Syria into a major war with Israel.
The Syrians prevented a Lebanese leftist-PLO victory in the civil war. They had no effect on the PLO in South Lebanon because of Israel's insistence that Syrian soldiers not cross a ''red line'' north of the Lebanese-Israeli border. South Lebanon remained an Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint that saw continued PLO operations and the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982.
After the independent PLO was expelled from Lebanon, the threat to Lebanese neutrality came from a different quarter: the Lebanese-Israeli troop withdrawal agreement of May 17, 1983.
Syria claims that the May 17 agreement turns Lebanon into a ''virtual Israeli protectorate.'' This is an exaggeration, but Syrian fears that the accord will allow Israel to use Lebanon as a base for political and intelligence operations against Syria are not unreasonable. The agreement establishes permanent Israeli diplomatic and security offices in Lebanon and obligates the Lebanese government to negotiate a normalization of economic and other relations with Israel. It bans most Arab forces from Lebanon, but provides for a residual Israeli presence in South Lebanon and would allow Israel to attack Syria through Lebanon in ''self defense.''
The May 17 agreement contains provisions that go far beyond Israeli security needs and gives Israel additional means to threaten Syria. Syria's obduracy concerning the agreement is therefore to be expected.
Syrian objections aside, the agreement violates a principle of the earlier Lebanese formula for neutrality - political alignment with the Arab world - that kept Lebanon out of the Arab-Israeli conflict for 20 years. The agreement is also deeply divisive in Lebanese internal politics; factions representing a majority of Lebanese have rejected it from the start.
Lebanese President Amin Gemayel is reportedly ready to renounce or demand to renegotiate the accord. His willingness to reconsider could lead to a major breakthrough in the solution of Lebanon's problems.
The US should quietly admit that the May 17 accord was unworkable and not press the Lebanese to retain it. The US should also do everything in its power to dissuade Israel from taking reprisals against Lebanon if the agreement is dropped.
Israel has threatened to keep its troops in South Lebanon if Lebanon renounces the accord. There is, however, mounting pressure on the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from the Army, the Labor Party and the Peace Now movement to withdraw from Lebanon regardless of the fate of the agreement. Gen. Aharon Yariv, a former director of Israeli military intelligence, proposed three months ago that Israel withdraw from Lebanon in return for a Syrian agreement not to advance from its present lines and to do everything possible to prevent terrorist attacks on the Galilee. Such an Israeli-Syrian trade - even one including a Syrian withdrawal - has a better chance of succeeding than the May 17 accord.
Continued US support for the May 17 accord will only discourage the reassessment of Lebanon gaining force in Israel, pose an insurmountable obstacle to Lebanese reconciliation, and reduce American diplomacy in Lebanon to the guns of the battleship New Jersey.
Lebanon must be reformed, but until there is a comprehensive regional peace it must also be able to maintain its traditional neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict.