The commander of the Lebanese Forces Christian militia urged in an interview published here today that Lebanon sign a peace treaty with Israel to neutralize Syria's ability to apply pressure on Lebanon.
"If we have normal relations with all our neighbors, I think Lebanon can be free to make its own political decisions and there will be some kind of equilibrium," Lebanese Forces commander Fadi Frem said in an interview with Monday Morning magazine.
"Syria will not be able to pose such threats as closing the borders or stopping our transit trade anymore," he said.
It appeared highly unlikely that the view of the Lebanese Forces, de facto allies of Israel, would influence the government of President Amin Gemayel, which has strongly resisted Israeli pressure for normal relations between the two countries, fearing that such a change would bring a violent reaction from Syria and cause other Arab nations to mount a potentially damaging diplomatic campaign against Lebanon.
The Lebanese Forces, an organization created by President Gemayel's brother Bashir, never really transferred its loyalties after Bashir Gemayel's assassination and Amin Gemayel's election as president.
It has paid lip service to Gemayel's government but resisted the president's efforts to persuade it to disarm and to yield total control of East Beirut to the Lebanese Army. It still operates "private ports" that deprive the central government of the import duties that constitute its main source of revenue.
The Frem interview seemed significant as a reflection of the sharpening of internal divisions in Lebanon as diplomatic efforts aimed at getting occupying Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian forces to withdraw from Lebanon drag on without any clear signs of progress.
In Jerusalem, U.S. presidential envoy Philip C. Habib held his first meeting with a new high-level Israeli team designed to speed up the withdrawal talks with Lebanon, The Associated Press reported.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Menachem Begin said Habib asked Begin last week to set up the top-level team. The spokesman, Uri Porat, said the team includes Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and David Kimche, Israel's chief negotiator in the talks.
Israel radio said Habib wanted Lebanon and Syria to set up similar groups of high-ranking officials.
Advisers to Gemayel attempted to portray last week's U.S.-inspired compromise on an agenda to get the stalled talks into the substance of negotiations as an "initial victory for Lebanon."
Leftist leaders here, however, were critical. Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, described the compromise as Lebanese concessions made "under Israeli and American terms." The pro-Syrian daily newspaper Ash Sharq, in an editorial, said, "We are not happy."
Western diplomats here fear that if no withdrawal agreement is reached soon, the fledgling Gemayel government could find itself in the midst of a new round of all-out civil strife and lose all hope of extending its control over the war-torn country.
"We are . . . conscious of the fact that time, for a whole variety of reasons, is not in favor of the Lebanon at the moment," British Ambassador David Roberts said in an interview published here today. "It is urgent that the negotiations should go fast."
Asked if he thought Israel was deliberately stalling negotiations, Roberts responded, "I am not really qualified to interpret Israeli policy--I find it very, very difficult."
Other western diplomats here voice the suspicion that Israel has been deliberately delaying negotiations--first by insisting that some of the talks be held in Israel, then by demanding that one of the headings on the agenda for the talks be the "normalization of relations."