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Lebanon has a choice

In the wake of the terrible murder of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the people of Lebanon confront a momentous choice. They can either give vent to vengeance and frustration in further sectarian fighting, tearing the country apart even more. Or they can summon up their deepest reserves of forbearance, courage, and love of nation to put behind the bitter strife of the past and work together for a way out of their present ordeal. For unless the Lebanese themselves now make a Herculean effort on the side of reconciliation and peace, the risk is great that Lebanon will never be a whole country again.

It will not be enough to blame the Arab-Israeli dispute for the tragic circumstances in which Lebanon finds itself. The presence of the Palestinians in Lebanon - and the Syrian and Israeli interventions - have greatly exacerbated local political tensions. Indeed in this latest bloody deed Lebanon is reaping the whirlwind of Israel's self-appointed task of trying to reorder the body politic in Lebanon.

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But it is also reaping the whirlwind of a decade and more of civil strife. Christian against Muslim. Shia Muslim against Sunni Muslim. Maronite Christian against Orthodox Christian. Family against family. How could any nation survive such divisiveness and hatreds? As the Muslim population has grown in proportion to the Christian, the nation's confessional political system has come under increasing challenge. Even if the Palestinians had never sought a haven in Lebanon, there would have been a struggle to end the dominance of the Maronite Catholics. The assassination of Mr. Gemayel, a Maronite, is itself symptomatic of that struggle. High hopes had been placed on him to unify the country and strengthen the government, but this would have meant reaching out effectively to the Muslims and living down his own violent past.

While the onus for uniting Lebanon lies largely with the Lebanese people, this is not to say that the United States could not now play a helpful role. There is understandable dismay and gloom in Washington. The heightened uncertainty in Lebanon comes just at a time when momentum has been building for a Middle East peace negotiation - with the Arab leaders uniting for the first time to put forth a peace plan and King Hussein of Jordan praising President Reagan's forthright proposal. It would compound the tragedy if that momentum were lost altogether. And it need not be if the US showed it is prepared to help rebuild a stable central government in Lebanon - and a strong Lebanese Army to back it up.

Such attempts have been made in the past, of course, but from the distance of Washington. Perhaps the time has come to take a more forceful hand - by assigning Philip Habib, say, the task of working on the spot with the various Lebanese political factions to work out a solution - not of course to tell the Lebanese who their leaders should be or how to run their government but merely to encourage a process of compromise and accommodation. Surely it is in the US interest to help preserve Lebanon, which has become such a tragic cockpit of regional rivalries, and to secure the removal of all foreign forces.

The alternative could be a partition of the country into an Israeli-backed Christian state and a Syrian-supported Muslim one, an objective long mooted by some Zionist leaders and perhaps even now being pursued as Israeli forces batten down a presence in west Beirut.

Yet the basic question urges itself: After 40 years of independence, what do the Lebanese want?

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