IT is tempting to conclude that this week's assassination in Lebanon of Prime Minister Rashid Karami is just another in a never-ending series of tragedies befalling that divided nation. But Lebanon can - must - reconcile its warring factions. Partition is not an answer. By killing Mr. Karami, a nationalist and persistent optimist who had served as Lebanon's prime minister on nine previous occasions, the assassins attacked what little cohesion remains in Beirut these days. But in a rare display of unity, Christians joined Muslims in a national strike of protest.
Much of the world finds it almost impossible to track the myriad religious and political factions struggling for survival and power in Lebanon. To many onlookers, it has seemed a nation bent on destroying itself.
Current fighting may stem less from the 1975 Lebanese civil war, pitting Lebanese against Palestinians, than from the more recent 1982 Israeli invasion, aimed at routing the Palestinians. Thus the precipitating cause for today's strife may be said to have come from the outside, not from any inherent inability to achieve a workable self-government within Lebanon itself. Past friction among Lebanese factions was revived as groups consolidated their hold on particular stretches of territory.
Despite such communal allegiance, most Lebanese also have a strong sense of national loyalty. Theirs is not an artificial state. In its present form, Lebanon dates back a respectable 67 years. It has a distinct cultural identity and common pride in its merchant trader tradition. Central institutions, though weak, still exist. The Lebanese parliament still passes legislation. Though foreign forces and sectarian militias have considerably more power, the Lebanese Army has a headquarters, staff, and logistics network. Despite steady turmoil around them, Lebanon's teachers continue to teach and be paid by the national government.
At the heart of Lebanon's longstanding political problems, however, is a point of equity the Lebanese people and their leaders must face. Over the years a population shift has put Muslims rather than Christians in the majority. Under a 1943 oral agreement with local religious groups after Lebanon's independence from France, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim. In the parliament only 5 Muslim seats exist for every 6 Christian seats.
Lebanon has come close to resolving the problem more than once. In 1976, its president agreed to divide parliament's seats along 50-50 lines, but the plan was thwarted by Druze leaders. A similar agreement negotiated by Syria was rejected by the Maronites in 1986, largely because it reduced the presidency to more of a ceremonial office. The late Mr. Karami had offered his resignation a month ago because of a Cabinet deadlock over the ratio issue.
Lebanon has long been a society where the periphery is more important than the center. When the central government again revives, as it must one day, it is likely to be weak. But the framework for such a resurgence is already in place. Existing institutions need only be adapted or rejuvenated to accommodate more of those whose voices have not been as powerful as they should be. Lebanese and their leaders need but decide they have had enough of constant, destructive conflict and are ready for a change. It is a tall but not impossible order. Courageous leadership is required.