Two key Christian and Moslem Lebanese leaders had a meeting today in what is seen as a significant step toward healing the still-festering wounds from Lebanon's 1975-76 civil war and forming a coalition that could govern the country.
Rightist Christian leader Bashir Gemayel and leftist Moslem leader Walid Jumblatt met privately this morning for an undisclosed period of time at the presidential palace in the Baabda suburb of Beirut.
In West Beirut, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said he was willing to evacuate his forces from Lebanon to end the military standoff with Israeli forces, Washington Post correspondent William Branigin reported. Meanwhile, several incidents shook the fragile cease-fire among Israel, Syria and the PLO.
Jumblatt is considered the pivotal figure for the success of a Gemayel-led effort to reconstitute Lebanon's short-lived National Salvation Council. The original council was formed in late June, a few weeks after the June 6 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in an effort to form a unified Lebanese government, but it collapsed in less than two weeks after Jumblatt pulled out.
The unity effort is particularly important to Gemayel, who as commander of the Christian militias--the Lebanese Front--is seen here as the leading contender to become Lebanon's next president in September under a post-civil war formula allotting the presidency to a Christian. Gemayel's father, Pierre, is the president of the Phalangist Party, a conservative political grouping and the leading political party among Lebanon's Christians.
Before the Israeli invasion and the subsequent siege of Beirut, Bashir Gemayel's efforts to bring Lebanon together under his umbrella had met with resistance. His desire to approach the election as a Lebanese leader rather than what one Christian politician called a "leader of Lebanese Christian factions" would be enhanced significantly if the Salvation Council succeeds.
The Christians, along with some Western diplomatic sources here, maintain that a major element in a possible reconciliation between Christians and Moslems is the weakening of the military power of the Palestine Liberation Organization. They said that before the Israeli invasion, the PLO had been able to pressure Moslem leaders to eschew any reconciliation efforts.
Jumblatt is the leader of a loose leftist coalition called the National Movement and of the minority Druze sect.
Although he originally resisted joining the council until the withdrawal of Israeli forces, he later agreed, saying he did not want to be responsible for the destruction of the capital by Israel. Later he decided to pull out and the council collapsed.
In moving toward reconstituting the council, Gemayel or his deputies have met during the past week with Nabih Berri, head of the Shiite Moslem Amal movement and traditional Sunni Moslem leader Saeb Salam, six times prime minister and widely liked throughout Lebanon's divided society.
After the session, Jumblatt told reporters that the meeting was aimed at "overcoming certain obstacles," which he declined to identify. Jumblatt added that while there were no personal differences between him and Gemayel "there are still great political differences."
Jumblatt then left for Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad in connection with the negotiations to get the PLO, encircled in West Beirut by Israeli soldiers, peacefully withdrawn to another country.
Gemayel said he believed today's meeting was an indication of success. "It was the first time that we could come together without outside supervision," added the blunt-spoken Gemayel, in a pointed reference to previous Syrian and PLO involvement in Lebanon's domestic politics.
In another development, the Voice of Israel said Israeli soldiers found bodies of four Palestinian guerrillas this morning who were killed in armed clashes with Israeli troops in the Bekaa Valley around Lake Qirawn Friday night. Israel also reported that guerrillas and Syrians fired small arms at Israeli forces in the Beirut area and that one Israeli was wounded in fighting around Beirut's airport today.
Branigin added the following report from West Beirut:
Later today in an interview broadcast on state-run television, Gemayel denounced the PLO's delay in meeting Israeli demands to evacuate Beirut and warned Arafat to leave the country while there was still time.
Arafat, after touring Palestinian neighborhoods and military positions in West Beirut's Fakhani neighborhood, called for direct talks between the PLO and U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib to arrange the removal of the 5,000 to 6,000 PLO guerrillas trapped in the Lebanese capital.
"He is not in need and I am not in need" of intermediaries in what have been indirect negotiations on the PLO's withdrawal, Arafat said. "He can talk with me directly to save time, and to save my time, too."
His statements came as Israeli forces lifted a blockade they had reapplied Friday on food shipments to the besieged sector. The Israelis allowed supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat to enter the area and kept the roads open for limited traffic out of the area to the eastern half of the city, which is controlled by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies.