With Israeli occupation troops within a few hundreds yards of his hillside presidential palace, President Elias Sarkis today formed a National Salvation Council designed to reflect the country's delicately balanced religious communities, but failed to persuade one of the key actors to attend.
Of the six invited leaders, the lone holdout, and the cause of what may turn out to be the effort's failure, was Walid Jumblatt, the traditional leader of the Druze minority whose fiefdom in the Chouf mountains south of Beirut was occupied last week by the Israelis.
Although technically held under house arrest in his ancestral mountain home at Mukhtara by the Israelis, Jumblatt sent word that he refused to participate in the council in any case, since it was being formed "under the shadow of occupation." He also complained about the body's purported lack of representativeness. His refusal forced cancellation of the council's first meeting scheduled for midafternoon.
Jumblatt also serves as nominal leader of a loose coalition of Moslem and leftist militias in West Beirut known as the National Movement that resents the renewed strength of traditional Moslem leaders.
The at least initial failure to put together the body that Sarkis hoped would run the country until a more permanent plan could be devised touched off fears that the Israelis would resort anew to shelling and bombing predominantly Moslem West Beirut to force a new government of their liking on Lebanon.
News of the failed initiative became known only hours before special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib arrived by car from Damascus this evening He and Morris Draper, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, held four hours of talks with Sarkis at the palace at Baabda five miles east of the capital.
The American envoys were believed to be bearing Israel's formal conditions, thought to include a 25-mile-deep demilitarized zone north of the Lebanese-Israeli border, elimination of the Palestinians as a military force, partial or total Syrian withdrawal and an international force to keep the peace.
Whatever its other intended aims, the Sarkis initiative announced at midday paid off for the Israelis by further isolating the Palestinian guerrillas trapped in West Beirut. Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Moslem militia called Amal--which fought tenaciously against the Israeli invaders--agreed to serve on the council, thereby depriving the guerrillas of their major remaining military ally.
The proposed council also included Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Maronite Christian militia, Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan for the Sunni Moslems, Foreign Minister Fuad Boutros representing the Greek Orthodox, and Nasri Mahlouf, a Greek Catholic legislator.
President Sarkis, also a member, apparently hoped the council could both preserve the last remnants of long-frayed Lebanese legality and help negotiate the end of the presence of armed Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis on Lebanese soil.
Constitutionally the now 10-year-old parliament must elect a new president between July 23 and September 11, and many analysts say the Israeli occupation may complicate--or even prevent--the process and deprive the state of any claim to legitimacy.
But with tens of thousands of Lebanese Moslem civilian casualties killed and wounded in the technologically sophisticated destruction unleashed by the Israelis, Jumblatt, at least, refused to play ball.
Even some close associates criticized his decision, arguing that Jumblatt was isolated in the mountains and out of touch with the dangerously explosive mood in West Beirut.
Yet many Lebanese said the Israelis had not shown much sophistication in pointedly occupying the few square miles around the presidential palace last night.
For many thoughtful Lebanese, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's presence in Baabda last night was taken as an intended humiliation no matter how little use they have for the Palestinians and Syrians.
Rightly or wrongly, that episode--as well as Israeli leaks since the invasion began--appeared motivated by the Israelis' desire to impose their "silent partner" ally, Gemayel, as the dominant force in any future government. His supporters make no secret of their determination to have him succeed Sarkis as president, the office traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians.
Should the now-doubtful presidential proposal succeed, it would mark the first time since the Lebanese civil war began in April 1975 that Lebanese of all political and religious affiliations sat down together in any major government forum.
And more important for those West Beirut residents who have not fled their sector of the capital, the proposed National Salvation Council could help avoid more death and destruction.