After nearly two years of continued negotiations over the Lebanese crisis, U.S. presidential envoy Philip Habib may have some credibility and some steam left. Yet the results of his mission have hardly been commensurate with his personal efforts. The time has now come to change the approach lest it soon become necessary to change the man.

Habib's mission began in the spring of 1981 when Israel reacted to Syria's movement of missiles forward into Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. Yet his many months of shuttling between Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem did not bring the restoration of Lebanon's sovereignty any closer. Instead, two months ago, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon occurred, as had been foreseen since the beginning of the year. Now, with the expansion of Israel's stated initial objectives beyond the 25-mile limit, Begin's solemn pledge not to annex "one inch of Lebanon" is publicly rejected by the most recently appointed member of the Israeli Cabinet.

Thus, the agony of Lebanon continues and worsens under the occupation of its domineering neighbors, viciously competing to snatch up the pieces of Lebanese territory that they covet most.

Today as before, Habib's mission remains apparently satisfied with the sole achievement of buying time. But for whom and to what end? To enable Israel to soften the PLO resistance in West Beirut and deliver the world, no matter the price of what it persists in calling the "Palestinian cancer"? Or to help expose Israel to the objections raised by world public opinion to its Operation Peace for Galilee? Or to display once again the reluctance of the Arab world to welcome the PLO in its midst?

Whatever the actual objectives of the Habib mission, buying time is hardly compatible with the interests of Lebanon. For in the meantime, its territorial integrity is threatened by the respective ambitions that Syria and Israel continue to entertain in and over Lebanon. The age-old rhetoric of a Greater Syria in northern and eastern Lebanon complement, in a tacit trade-off, the aspirations of a Greater Israel that would find in the water of the rivers of southern Lebanon a commodity nearly as vital as oil is to Saudi Arabia. Or else Israel would sponsor and sustain the brutal leadership of a "new Lebanon" that would rely on a predominantly Christian army to impose such repression as to cause the exodus of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese resisting foreign occupation, religious persecution and internal dictatorship. Accordingly, what is threatened today is no less than the very survival of Lebanon as a united, sovereign and multidenominational state.

Sensitive to the destabilizing consequences of an eventual involvement in the international conflicts of the region, Lebanon carefully avoided becoming involved in any of the Arab-Israeli wars after 1948, abiding instead by the terms of the 1949 armistice agreement that confirmed the mutually recognized borders between the two countries. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, however, Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy chose to focus on the disengagement of the Egyptian and Syrian fronts with Israel. In so doing, Kissinger left a window of war on the Lebanese-Israeli border, one that was opened further as the Palestinians were left out of the peace process.

In part as a result, there emerged a PLO state within the Lebanese state, a PLO state that sought military and political recognition in Lebanon, within the region, and in the world. In turn, the PLO's meddling in Lebanese politics attracted the interference of Syria and Israel, whose objectives, as Kissinger should have known, extended beyond the status of the Palestinians and threatened the unity and the sovereignty of Lebanon. Accordingly, war lords soon emerged throughout the country and within each community, and the disintegration of the internal security forces and the splintering of the Lebanese army followed.

Miraculously enough, the Lebanese social, economic and cultural infrastructure not only endured the seven years of intense and constant turmoil that followed but also managed to prosper. Ignored by a confused world opinion, abandoned by a cynical Arab world and neglected by the Western democracies, the Lebanese were left with their best and sole resource: an exceptional ability to adapt and an extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit. Today, therefore, the Lebanese will to survive is stronger than ever before.

So it is possible to seek beyond the daily headlines of the current crisis an approach that would be right for Lebanon and would also satisfy the legitimate interests of outside powers. This must be done. To move away from short-term satisfactions, such as buying time, and to move boldly toward lasting solutions, Lebanon first requires the departure of all foreign forces now inside its internationally recognized boundaries. In addition, and to satisfy the alleged security concerns of both Syria and Israel, we seek a permanent neutrality for Lebanon. For only through neutrality could Lebanon avoid the internal conflicts that have accompanied alignment abroad. Only through neutrality could Lebanon escape the regional wars of which geography has made it a part. And only through neutrality would Syria and Israel both gain peace in Lebanon and a way out of the Lebanese quicksand.

Second, we require a complete disarmament of the Palestinians and the Lebanese private armies. With regard to the Palestinians, what the Lebanese came to resent and reject almost unanimously was the armed activities of the Palestinians within Lebanon, because such activities frustrated Lebanese sovereignty, Lebanese dignity and Lebanese freedom. Under conditions of permanent neutrality, the complete disarmament of the Palestinians, together with that of the Lebanese private armies, would protect the hundreds of thousands of remaining Palestinians in Lebanon from harassment, abuse and bloodshed.

Third, the Lebanese democratic process must be at last restored and freed from non-Lebanese pressures. It would be a dramatic error to hold the presidential elections while foreign armies control almost all of Lebanon and foreign tanks are stationed at the back door of the presidential palace. A president elected under such circumstances would be challenged by his adversaries within his own community, and within all the other communities as well, as an illegitimate puppet of foreign powers. Any peace treaty signed by such a president would be considered by the majority of the Lebanese and by the Arab world as treason. Lebanon's unity would then disintegrate, and its isolation from the rest of the Arab world would smother its economy: in other words, Lebanon would become a burden whose weight would make its protectors sink economically with it.

But with the emergence of a peaceful and neutral Lebanon out of the ashes of the war, the economic boom generated by the renewed confidence of the Lebanese in their own country (and in a leadership that is strong because it is credible to all) would be sufficient to rebuild Lebanon and to reward its economically weak but militarily strong neighbors.

In October 1979, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan criticized, in the name of "just simple humanity," the "derelict" negligence of the "tragic situation in Lebanon"--the U.S. lack of "help or concern or diplomatic overture." Today, the tragedy has reached new heights, and the time has come for the Reagan administration to pursue an approach that recognizes that what is good for Lebanon is good for the United States, and perhaps equally good for Israel--but not the other way around.