YET another peace effort is underway in divided Lebanon, and it deserves every encouragement. This week's two meetings of the Lebanese cabinet are the first in nine months. At the first meeting Tuesday, two ministers, one Christian and one Muslim, were asked to draft a power-sharing covenant within the next month. Prime Minister Rashid Karami says the ``good intentions'' involved may yet lead to a ``happy ending for this noble country.''
Many young Lebanese may not even remember that their once beautiful nation was such a thriving center of tourism and banking that it was known a few decades ago as the Switzerland of the Middle East. For the last eleven years Lebanon has been wracked by an intense civil war among its myriad Muslim and Christian factions, variously aided and quelled by Syrian and Israeli troops trying to use the divisions to their own national advantage. Some 100,000 from all sides have been killed. Car bombings are routine.
The last attempt at national reconciliation fell apart within two weeks of its signing in late December, l985, by Druze, Christian, and Muslim militia chiefs. Unhappy with the Syrian-sponsored agreement, Christian hard-liners promptly replaced the Christian signator, and Christian Lebanese President Amin Gemayel refused to endorse the accord.
Yet its basic theme -- giving Muslims a stronger government voice -- is a point on which Lebanese Christians must eventually yield to some degree. For decades Christians have had a six to five edge in government representation over Muslims though the latter now account for at least half, and possibly two-thirds, of the population.
Any realistic reshuffling of power relationships must include considerable economic and administrative decentralization as well as some guarantee of protection for minorities. In practice, Lebanon has been divided into numerous regions held by rival militia. Recently, Lebanese factions have begun building up the size and fighting power of these militia, arguing that the weakness of the national Lebanese armed forces requires it. It is a trend deplored by the US State Department, which, correctly, calls for a return of the government's effective authority throughout the country and withdrawal of all foreign forces.
Both Syria and Israel still have a considerable number of troops in Lebanon and view their presence as a necessity to ward off attacks against their borders. Although it can be argued that the few hundred Syrian troops which moved cautiously into Muslim West Beirut in July have contributed to a calming of the explosive situation there, Lebanon on the whole would be better off without interference from either side.
President Gemayel has called for an emergency United Nations meeting this fall to press once again for implementation of the Security Council resolution calling for withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Lebanon. That move, unfortunately, would come more easily if the nine-nation United Nations peacekeeping force in the South were in a stronger position to hold guard over Israel's northern border. Recently, radical Shiite Muslims in the region, who have strong ties to Iran and favor an Islamic state, have stepped up their attacks on UN troops. Those Shiites, largely members of the Party of God faction, far outnumber their more moderate Amal counterparts and see the UN presence as legitimizing Israel's existence.
The key test of the success of any peace effort in Lebanon will depend on the degree to which the various hard-line factions can be persuaded to sacrifice their often narrow goals for the common national good.