THE ROLE that Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters and John Chancellor played in the Sadat-Begin talks in Jerusalem cannot be underestimated. By bypassing the State Department and going directly to the three anchor-persons of American television, Sadat and Begin agreed to meet, which was the breakthrough that everyone had been hoping for.

It might have been different though if Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, had chosen to have Howard Cosell, instead of Barbara Walters, conduct the interview between the two men.

This is what I mean.

"Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. This is Howard Cosell bringing you an exclusive ABC Sports spectacular live and in color from the ringside here in Jerusalem. Tonight we are presenting another star-studded fight with the uncomparable Egyptian heavyweight, Anwar Sadat, who is risking his title as champion of the Arab world, to meet with one of the toughest little sluggers in the Middle East, Prime Minister Menahem Begin, a comparatively unknown backbencher, until he knocked out the formidable Yitzak Rabin in the last Israeli elections.

"I spoke to Anwar in the locker room in Cairo a few days ago, and he told me that he would go anywhere, any time to meet with Menahem. I then passed this message on to Menahem, who revealed he was ready to take on Anwar even if it meant fighting his whole Israeli Cabinet.

"And so the two gladiators are here tonight, which I will have to admit, in all candor, I must take full credit for.

"Anwar, forgive me for asking this question, but I deem it incumbent on my part to do it for the benefit of the TV audience. Why did you decide to fight Begin at this time?"

"I decided to come to Jerusalem to show I was interested in peace."

"But surely, Anwar, Egypt, with its Russian-made tanks, missiles and MIG airplanes is a match for Israel. Are you trying to say, and correct me if I'm wrong, that you couldn't march into Tel Aviv at any time you wanted?"

"That is not the point. The point is that war is no longer a solution to the problems of the Middle East."

"It sounds to me, Anwar, that you're afraid of tiny Israel."

"I am not afraid of Israel."

"All right, Anwar, forgive me, but I have to tell it like it is.

"Now, let's have a word with Begin. Menahem, I must say in all frankness, that it has been said you have lost some of the spunk and verve that made you such a formidable threat during the memorable Mideast wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967. You don't seem to be the same Begin that we all remember from the Irgun days."

"I wish to say Howard, I welcome Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and I hope that we can find a peaceful solution to our differences."

"And yet, if you don't mind my own observation, you told me only a few months ago that you could still go the whole distance and get to Cairo if you wanted to. Perhaps I'm speaking out of turn, but I would be remiss if I didn't ask this question. 'Are you chickening out because you are not in condition?"'

"I am not chickening out of anything. Sadat knows I'm not chicken."

"Anwar, are you ready to say in front of millions of people watching this telecast by satellite that Menahem is not chicken?"

"I don't think we should talk about chickens at this time. I am here to give my position and listen to the Israeli position."

"If you don't mind my saying so, and I must intercede at this time, it appears to me that we have here a total absence of aggression in both parties, which I perceive will disappoint everyone who was turned in because we promised them a fight.

"This is the show we expected to bring you from the Middle East, I hope that the World Boxing Commission will take note of it, and hold up the purses of both Sadat and Begin until a full investigation is forthcoming.

"This is Howard Cosell from Jerusalem telling it like it is."