WITHIN two days in the beginning of November, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was shown to the world in a visibly debilitated state, and Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was tragically assassinated. Two countries central to America's diplomacy were plunged into leadership crises of unforeseen proportions. These events call for more diplomatic skill and real leadership than has ever been required from, or shown by, the Clinton administration.
In Moscow, Mr. Yeltsin appeared on television Nov. 3 for the first time after being closeted in a hospital for eight days. The physical weakness he displayed raised questions about whether the decision to air the interview was intended to provide reassurance - or just the opposite. All access to Yeltsin seemed tightly controlled by his bodyguard, Gen. Alexander Korzhakov. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that leaders of Russia's ''power ministries'' should report to him.
There were eerie parallels with the summer of 1991, when then-President Mikhail Gorbachev was encircled by bodyguards in Crimea while the military launched an unsuccessful coup in Moscow. This time around, Russia's leadership uncertainty comes in the run-up to crucial nationwide elections for parliament in mid-December, and for president next June.
Yeltsin's hospitalization occurred just hours after he arrived home from a summit meeting with President Clinton in New York. In Hyde Park, Yeltsin gave an extraordinary performance during a press conference, joking and saying little of substance. He did, however, stress his deep commitment to Russia's ties with Washington.
Evidently, uncertainty or - worse - actual conflict over the levers of power in Russia is a matter that must concern everyone. American-funded efforts to draw down (and increase the security of) Russia's nuclear stockpile continue, despite inadequate funding. But the risk of nuclear blackmail from disaffected groups in the Russian military remains. We should hope for a stable resolution to Moscow's leadership crisis, and for American diplomacy toward Russia that is generous, helpful, and not overbearing. A difficult feat, particularly given the ''don't care'' attitude of many in Congress.
Meanwhile, the shocking killing of Israel's prime minister has captured public attention. In the short run, there is no uncertainty over Israel's political succession: Shimon Peres is well qualified to lead a caretaker government. But Israel, too, will see general elections next year, including its first direct, presidential-style vote for prime minister. Rabin's untimely absence may bring into that poll a contest between the next generation of Labor Party leaders. The hard-line Likud Bloc has already chosen a superficially attractive leader whose election could halt or undermine any combined progress toward peace.
Will the shock that greeted Rabin's killing leave Israel's extremists sidelined? Or will the voices of caution within Labor, or irredentism from Likud, prevail and rapprochement with the Palestinians start to fall apart?
These are questions that no one in the Clinton administration ever asked while the much-trusted Rabin was alive. The administration's Middle East policy was always based, pure and simple, on backing Yitzhak Rabin. Such a stance is no longer possible. And if uncertainty over the peace process ripples through the Middle East, Mr. Clinton will need to underline his country's commitment to policies that bolster all of its supporters. A tall order, there, too.
The events in Russia and Israel, the Bosnia negotiations, a potential ''train wreck'' with Congress over the budget, and the electoral season starting in the US prove that now, more than ever, the president needs a commanding secretary of state. It is time for Secretary of State Warren Christopher to step up to the plate.