NOTHING BETTER illustrates the flimsiness of Lebanon's grip on its own destiny than the peregrinations of the American representative, Philip Habib, who in his efforts to avert war in Lebanon finds himself spending most of his time in Israel and Syria. It is as though the Lebanese were incidental to the potential conflict, spectators at their own ruin. It is a sobering vista, the more so that few of the actors evince awareness, let along regret, that Lebanon's sovereignty is being treated like smoke, something to blow away in order to see the real terrain of Israeli-Syrian confrontation underneath. Even the redoubtable and sympathetic Mr. Habib focuses on the most immediately explosive aspect, which requires him to tend to the twin fuses burning in Jerusalem and Damascus. Lamented Lebanon's president the other day, "the only losers are Lebanon and the Lebanese."

You can find people who claim that Lebanon is not so much a nation as a political or cultural invention fashioned by various outside interests: that it is one of those countries like Cyprus, whose sovereignty is accidental and not to be much mourned when lost; that its misfortunes are somehow less serious because they were brought on in part by acts of cupidity by the Lebanese themselves; that particular groups of Lebanese solicit or accept the foreign attachments that erode the country's sovereignty, and so on. Some of these arguments are made by Syria, some by Israel. Contempt for Lebanese sovereignty has become the common core of their respective policies in Lebanon.

It is possible that from the current crisis a sense can emerge that the restoration of Lebanon is not only right in itself but is also the key to the interests imposed by the dominant outside players? Lebanon is not the West Bank, i.e., contested territory. It is not territory that either Syria or Israel can stake a claim to without arousing the predatory suspicions of the other. It is in the first instance territory that neither Israel nor Syria wants the other to be able to exploit.

Neutrality is the answer. It means foreign countries would stop intervening physically and Lebanese would stop looking outside their borders for solutions to the tensions arising inside them. The international role would be to invite a negotiation and offer guarantees.

But what then happens to the Palestinians, who, almost all Lebanese agree, spilled into Lebanon as a result of the establishment of Israel and are a destabilizing as well as a reluctant foreign presence there? Israel must decide whether its legitimate wish to have a peaceful border is satisfied better by the current policy of political manipulation and armed intervention in Lebanon or by seeking its neutrality and at the same time doing its full part ot make possible a solution to the Palestinian problem. Next month's Israeli election center, to an important extent, on precisely this choice.