IF Shimon Peres had expected to win his fight with Ariel Sharon by a split 15-round decision, he would have elected to avoid a public battle and instead settle the matter in-house where even some Likud Cabinet ministers would have offered their backing. But Peres -- a smart politician with a feel for strategy and tactics -- selected his cause, his opponent, and his moment with care. Those close to him made no effort to disguise the fact that the prime minister hoped to achieve a victory that would rid his government at least of Sharon and, quite probably, the Likud party as well.
The resulting Pyrrhic victory was a product of miscalculation and bad execution. In obtaining nothing more than a tepid apology and ambiguous ``clarification'' from a Cabinet minister whose attacks on his own government had violated all norms of parliamentary behavior, Peres lost far more than he gained.
The four small Knesset parties representing Orthodox Jewry have reinforced their role as arbitors of Israeli political affairs. And in clarifying his own position to show that Sharon's attacks on his conduct of the peace process were baseless, Peres restricted his diplomatic prerogatives while advertising to Israelis, to friends abroad, and to putative negotiating partners in the Arab world Labor's political weakness.
Sharon has been inviting confrontation for months. Should Israel's national unity government hold together, Peres must transfer the prime ministership to the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir next October, meaning Sharon would have to wait a minimum of three years for his own shot at the top job. But with the coalition disbanded, Sharon would be free to challenge Shamir for leadership of the Likud at its December convention.
In August, Sharon planted himself at the heart of the emotional dispute over West Bank settlement activity, visiting Jewish zealots who had illegally occupied space in Arab Hebron. When he termed Labor ministers ``liars'' and compared their policy to pre-statehood British white papers that had restricted Zionist settlement, Peres warned his Cabinet that similar outbursts would lead to dismissal of the guilty party even if that meant ending the coalition.
The effort by Peres and King Hussein to move toward peace negotiations furnishes the real context to all this activity. While committed by the Camp David treaty to negotiations with a Jordanian/Palestinian delegation, the Likud opposes territorial concessions of any variety and favors the eventual annexation of the West Bank, positions that would effectively foreclose negotiations after Shamir becomes prime minister.
Labor favors territorial compromise on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those close to Peres have made known his amenability to similar arrangements on the Golan Heights, if that will get Syria to the negotiating table.
In this situation, it is in the Likud's interest to keep the current government together on the assumption that an assortment of procedural obstacles -- including a few of their own making -- will delay negotiations until rotation of the prime ministership occurs.
For Peres, the optimum situation would be to bring a government to the negotiating table united in its opening position and to risk a split with the Likud and new elections only with an irresistible peace agreement in hand.
He has been alert for an opportunity to ease the Likud out of the present government in circumstances where one or more of the Orthodox parties will stay behind. Their votes, with those of left-wing Zionist parties that declined to join a government with the Likud, but which might return to a narrow Labor coalition, could keep Peres in office until he had achieved the kind of peace agreement he could risk taking to the Israeli electorate.
The utter maliciousness and falsity of Sharon's attacks appeared to give Peres the awaited opportunity. The prime minister was termed ``weak and spineless'' in dealing with Egypt. He was accused of misleading the government about his intentions regarding an international conference, even though Sharon had himself supported Peres against a right-wing, no-confidence motion on the issue two weeks earlier.
Sharon further accused Peres of virtually bringing the PLO to the negotiating table and said Hussein should be forced to expel the PLO from Jordan before invited to negotiate with Israel, yet another position at variance with the Cabinet decision to negotiate with Jordan without preconditions. And in an utterance ugly and tasteless even by Sharon's typically relaxed standards, the ``cynicism'' of Labor was held responsible for the past spilling of Jewish blood -- an apparent reference to the October 197 3 war -- and a warning conveyed that such cynicism would have similar results in the future. This from the former defense minister who, in 1982, told his country and the world he was sending Israeli soldiers 40 kilometers into Lebanon for a few days to chase out the PLO, while planning all the while to engage the Syrians and push on to Beirut!
Labor ministers unanimously urged Peres to fire Sharon. If the Likud wanted to jump ship weighted down by this political albatross, so much the better. If the religious parties refused to stay around, what better issue to take before the electorate than the integrity of a government working for peace vs. the slanderous charges of the architect of the Lebanon disaster?
Instead Peres waffled. At first believing that one or more religious parties were on his side, the prime minister demanded Sharon's resignation and scheduled a Cabinet meeting to formalize his dismissal.
But when representatives of all four Orthodox parties said they would support no small coalition and insisted on mediating the crisis, Peres backed down. At first he demanded an explicit apology from Sharon, plus an expression of full support, plus stated procedures to avert such incidents in the future. He wound up with what John Ehrlichman might have called a ``modified limited apology,'' no expression of support, no clarifiying procedures, and Shamir again warning him not to tamper with Likud ministe rs. In the process, Peres stated his opposition to PLO participation in the peace process in stronger terms than he had found necessary to do in recent days.
Peres now needs a good international break -- perhaps the Reagan/Gorbachev summit will get the Soviet Union constructively engaged in the peace process, or some move by Jordan, Syria, or the PLO which provides an international umbrella for direct talks. But the view of Peres returning from the United Nations in charge of his country and its diplomacy has now dimmed.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.