Lebanese unity seems to hinge on the creation of a strong national army.
With such an army, President Amin Gemayel would have an opportunity to reestablish the central authority of the Lebanese government and get on with rebuilding his strife-torn country. Without it, Mr. Gemayel may well lack the authority to keep Lebanon from slipping once again into factional wars.
His problem is that the Lebanese Army is quite weak.
In the coming months, Gemayel is expected to tread lightly - taking care not to overextend the undermanned and underequipped Army in troubled regions and maintaining a careful balance between what the Lebanese are hoping for and what is actually possible.
After eight years of anarchy, what the Lebanese hope for is an army:
* Strong enough to disarm all autonomous militias.
* Able to protect Lebanon's borders and ensure its sovereignty and security.
* Capable of becoming a national melting pot from which Muslim Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Christians, and others will emerge as loyal Lebanese soldiers.
But is such an army possible? Some analysts caution that it would take many years to build. No one seems more aware of this than President Gemayel himself.
In Paris, after meeting with French leaders, Mr. Gemayel announced that he favors the expansion of the French, Italian, and American multinational peacekeeping force from its current 4,200 troops to 30,000 troops. He said the expanded force is necessary to oversee the withdrawal of Syrian, Palestinian, and Israeli forces from Lebanese territory. (A withdrawal plan is currently in the process of being negotiated by US diplomats.)
The Gemayel statement came two days after the United Nations Security Council voted to extend for three months the mission of a separate UN peacekeeping force in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon.
The continued presence in Lebanon of UN and multinational peacekeeping troops will to an extent help buy time for President Gemayel, allowing him to slowly ease his Army into its role as a national force.
An example of this approach, analysts say, is the great care taken prior to Gemayel's decision to deploy the Lebanese Army in the troubled Shouf region. The Army has been prepared for several days to enter the region with several hundred troops, but it has held off pending a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the four villages where fighting between Christians and Druze has broken out.
In the case of the Shouf intervention, no military decision to go in was announced until after the President had met with leaders on both sides of the fighting and had himself secured a political settlement of sorts. The subsequent delay in the Army's deployment is attributed more to Israeli intransigence than to concern that the forces could be caught in cross fire.
(State-run Beirut Radio announced Oct. 22 the Army was patrolling one village and had taken positions in two others.)
Some analysts say the Army is not in a position to extend its control much beyond the Beirut area until the force increases its size and strength. The challenge is not only to recruit, train, and equip a sufficient number of men, but also to gain the trust and support of the factions that currently wield power in Lebanon.
At the same time Gemayel must avoid the appearance that the Lebanese Army is a Christian-dominated institution, analysts say. He must strive to gain the trust of the Muslim leadership and of the leftist coalition National Movement. Their support of the Army and subsequent Muslim enlistment is essential.
Muslim leaders in west Beirut have expressed concern over the Army's large-scale search-and-arrest operations, which were carried out day after day in west Beirut neighborhoods to disarm leftist and PLO-aligned militias. The government has said almost 1,000 illegal residents have been arrested and tons of guns and munitions have been seized.
Muslim leaders question why similar operations haven't been carried out in largely Christian east Beirut against the militia of the Phalange Party, founded by President Gemayel's father.
The government has said it will carry out such operations in the east, if they are deemed necessary. Critics contend that the government's delay has given the heavily armed Christian Phalange time to move its weapons out of the city and into mountain strongholds.
Last week, before his official visits to the US, France, and Italy, Gemayel was said to have been negotiating the disarmament of the Phalange in east Beirut , as well as the possible future of the political party's militia. Sources said options discussed ranged from ordering the complete disarming and disbanding of the group, to the maintenance of a Phalange weapons stockpile under Lebanese Army control, to the possible development of the Phalange into a type of Lebanese national guard.
Phalange spokesmen have repeatedly indicated that the organization is at the complete disposal of the President and that it will follow his orders.
What is not known is whether the President is facing resistance from within the Phalange militia against disarming, or whether he is utilizing what he sees as a friendly force for as long as he can.
The Christian militia has been outspoken in its refusal to disarm in its strongholds to the north and east of the capital until Syrian troops as well as guerrillas aligned with the Palestine Liberation Organization leave Lebanon.
Politics aside, the Lebanese face a considerable task in building a strong army.
The Army presently includes approximately 21,000 men, 30 French-built tanks, some artillery, and no real workable air force.
The Army disintegrated as a fighting force during the 1975-76 civil war and has remained remarkably quiet and neutral in the subsequent years of fighting. As a result the force is said to have little practical battle experience and thus is in need of extensive field training and instruction in the use of up-to-date weaponry.
In addition, the Army is in need of and has requested a wide range of military equipment, including tanks and aircraft.
Much of the potential for success in these areas rests with Washington and the degree of commitment United States leaders make to Lebanon. This commitment is expected to come in the form of joint training agreements and military sales credits.
Beyond that, the Lebanese themselves must eventually grapple with a range of problems no less complex than how to integrate people who have been shooting at each other for eight years into the same fighting force.