ANWAR SADATS VISIT to Jerusalem opened a historic opportunity: Egypt and Israel, enemies since 1948, would stabilize the turbulent politics of the Middle East by jointly filling the power vacuum left by the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Now, three months later, that unique opportunity may be lost through the inadequacies of both its protagonists. For Sadat and Menachem Begin have shown themselves still to be prisoners of their cultural differences, unable to deal with the psychological needs of the occasion.

Sadat's recent visit to Camp David is in many ways the opposite of his visit to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he broke out of an impasse of 30 years by initiating direct political contract with Israel; at Camp David he returned to the familiar path of triangular negotiations conducted through the United States. In Jerusalem, he pierced the psychological barriers erected during 30 years of conflict; in Washington he erected new fences of suspicion by playing off American Jewry against the Israeli government. In Jerusalem, he exposed the Jewish-Arab conflict to the full impact of the mass media; at Camp David he returned to quiet diplomacy.

Considering the fact that never in history had a leader of a major warring state made a suddent personal appearance on enemy territory and talked openly with the people whom he had been fighting for more than a generation, there was little Begin could do except to try to adjust himself to the new situation. Yet, as time passes, as the rhetoric of speeches fades away and diplomatic pitfalls grow all around, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand the motivations of both leaders.

For those who believe in the conspiracy theory of history, there are grounds to claim that Sadat and Begin are acting according to a loose entente, dictated by the overwhelming need to make peace. How else can one explain the fact that one day Begin agrees, without prior negotiations, to recognize Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai, and the next day decides to limit that sovereignty through a demand for special civilian and military status for the Jewish settlements in the Rafiah area? How can one explain that one day Sadat sends a political delegation to Jerusalem and the next withdraws it, without knowing the results reached by the negotiators?

The answer given by the believers in conspiracy is that obviously both sides needed an artificial bone of contention to overcome their internal difficulties. By breaking off the political negotiations in Jerusalem over the settlement affair, Sadat can placate his critics. By creating a new secondary focus of dispute, Begin provides himself with diplomatic "currency" to be exchanged later with the Egyptian concessions on the West Bank. In this view, both followed the Napoleonic principle that leaders should have a pretext for quarreling in order to have a reason to make peace.

The other interpretation of the erratic development of the peace talks between Egypt and Israel is based on a closer examination of the personalities of Sadat and Begin, of their cultural backgrounds and their understanding of history.

Mass media have two well-known effects on actors: They enlarge their images and at the same time pitilessly focus on their shortcomings. Sadat and Begin have proved excellent mass media performers, yet they both proved unequal in statemanship to their oversized public images: They showed ingenuity but not vision, oratory but not historical imagination. With the possible exception of the confrontation in the Knesset - where the setting, the timing and the suspense of the event gave to the encounter a sense of history in the making - both Sadat and Begin were unable to fill the grandiose scene which they had helped erect.

Sadat, in spite of the oriental munificence of his gestures (the October, 1973, war will be the last one, he said; Egypt understoot the security problems of Israel), remained the canny farmer who could not overcome the greed for small possessions (in this case some 80 square miles in northern Sinai). Begin, in spite of his biblical style, remained the provincial lawyer, unable to overcome his passion for the details of a contract which was still very much written on sand. A Conflict of Cultures

TO MAKE THINGS worse, the difference in personality was accompanied by a conflict of cultures. Sadat and Begin have very old memories of national culture; they are both sincere when they talk of their religious faiths and credible when they speak of their desire for peace. Yet this same ancient culture to which they belong separates them because of the different experience of colonization undergone by their peoples.

The colonization of European Jewry was less an attempt to revive Jewish civilization thatn an act of revolt. European Jews had willingly accepted the way of life of a discriminating gentile majority into which Jews, since the 19th century, had wanted to integrate. But finding anti-Semitism an offense to their honor and dignity as westernizing men, proud Jews created a new situation in which a Jew should never again be subject to indignity.

To call Begin "Shylock," to indicate - as President Sadat did in his interview with the Egyptian weekly October - that the Israeli premier acted in bad faith (as Jews always did, was the implication); to speak - as Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel did - as a representative of the established historical majority in the Middle East (Egypt has for 7,000 years carried the responsibility of history in this area, he said) toward the cyclical, barbarian invaders who should pay and be grateful for being granted the right of residence, meant in effect to hit Begin in the psychologically most reactive spot of that Jewish pride which he has fought throughout his life to defend.

It also meant that the implicit understanding he thought he had established with Sadat at the Yad Vashem Jewish Holocaust memorial had been unilaterally broken by the Egyptians. Begin had not wanted to show the Egyptian president the proof of the sufferings of the Jewish people to elicit his compassion; he wanted to show him the extent of the indignity the Jews had had to bear, to make him understand that no one, big or small, could ever again insult the Jewish people with impunity.

The colonization of the Middle East, on the other hand, had been - according to the myths of the Arab political revival - an unbroken sequence of passionate acts of resistance to European influence, a rejection made more violent by the ambivalent love/hate feelings towards westernization, feelings which Israel evoke as its very aggressive symbol. To explain the Israel rejection of the Egyptian proposal of self-determination for the Palestinians on the ground that the improper use made by the Europeans of this polticial principle had brought disaster to the world; to call the foreign minister of a country which traditionally reveres old age "young man" - as Begin did to Kamel in his toast at the famous dinner at Jerusalem's King David Hotel; to stress the "desert blossoming" vocation of colonization of the type allowed in the Rafiah area - all these were gestures of minor political importance but of major symbolic value unacceptable to any self-respecting Arab. A Void No One Could Fill

COULD THE CLASH be avoided? Any student of history could have reminded Begin and Sadat that national conflicts cannot be solved at the national level, and that opposing interests and views can sometimes find their sublimation on a higher plane of international or ideological relationships (as happened with France and Germany within the European community, or the Balkan countries within the Communist sphere). No one could have expected the Israeli-Arab conflict to thaw through a peace formula which would in fact crystallize the present unstable ideological, historical and military balance of power.

Nor could the utopian plans of regional economic cooperation often advanced by Israeli leaders expect any favorable response from the Arab side. When people like Yitzhak Rabin or Begin speak of a Common Market type of soultion for the Middle East, they usually avoid mentioning the unpleasant fact that such a solution had to be preceded, in Europe, by a war lost by all members of the community and by the submission of the area to external dominance.

This kind of neo-imperial presence was dictated in Europe by the need to fill the void left by the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A similar void was not created in the Middle East after World War I by the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, because the place of the Turks was taken over by the British and French mandates. It was only after World War II, when both French and British imperial rule over the Middle East waned, that a turbulent situation, similar to that of Europe between the two world wars, was created. It is not by chance that the imperial void in the Middle East coincided with the de facto independence of the Arab states in the area and the appearance of a Jewish state in Palestine.

From a historical point of view, the Middle Eastern turmoil is therefore as much a result of the clash between Jewish and Arab nationalism as of the clash between the conflicting interests of the various new states of the area and of the inability of new local or external forces to fill the imperial vacuum. (Britain failed in this effort with the Baghdad Pact in 1955, Egypt under Nasser with the various attempts to form pan-Arab unions, the Americans in 1958 with the short-lived attempt to impose the Eisenhower Doctrine, and the Russians with their clumsy ideological penetration and their inefficient supply of arms to the so-called revolutionary regimes in the area.)

Since no one could fill the gap left by the Ottoman Empire, the best attitude, especially for the great powers, was to keep the void unfilled so that no successor states to the Turkish empire could take unilateral advantage in the area. Two Tragic Mistakes

IN THIS COMPLICATED situation, two countries were better off than the others: Egypt and Israel. The former contains one-third of the total population of the area, is the only compact national state in the Middle East unfettered by artifically created colonial boundaries (unlike Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Libya) and by politically conscious minorities. Its historic area of influence is Africa and the Nile Valle, its historic competitors the rulers of the Euphrates Valley (Iraq and Syria), who naturally tended to push their borders west as Egypt traditionally wanted to protect its eastern frontier.

Israel, on the other hand, is not the foreign invader described by Arab propaganda but - to use the expression of German sociologist Georg Simmel - the stranger within the city, the natural, useful carrier of innovation, for whose survival neutrality is indispensable. Israel's uniqueness (there is no other Hebrew state or religion or language in the world), combined with its socioeconomic energy and military power, called for the promotion by its leaders and the recognition by its neighbors of the positive role of its solitude.

Unfortunately, two tragic historical mistakes took place between 1948 and 1949 in Egypt and Israel. In May, 1948, after many months of hesitation, King Farouk of Egypt joined the ill-fated coalition of the Asian Arab states in a war against the country which could have been Egypt's natural ally and against a political movement, Zionism, which had never seriously interested or worried Egyptian public opinion.

The trauma of its military defeat nailed Egypt to the Arab coalition against Israel and brought into power in Cairo a charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, ignorant of history but aware of the chances open to Egypt through the disappearance of European domination over the Middle East. Nasser tried for almost 20 years to establish Cairo's leadership in the area, pushing his country further along the self-defeating road of pan-Arabism, which uses Israel and Zionism as the main glue holding it together. The results are well known

The second mistake was that of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who allowed Israel to break away from the position of non-alignment proclaimed at the time of its independence and gradually become a client state first of France and later of the United States. A Role To Be Played

NOT UNTIL 1973 was there a chance to undo the damage. The Yom Kippur was was traumatic for both Egypt and Israel, not only because of its military consequences but because it allowed both sides, for the first time in a generation, to reconsider their historical positions in the area.

Egypt, through its military initiative, could at last free itself from its inferiority complex toward the Hebrew state and look with newly critical eyes at those Arab "brothers" who - as Sadat repeatedly stressed - became richer at the expense of Egyptian blood and misery.

Israel, faced by mortal danger, came to grasp the unreality of an existence guaranteed by a military superiority founded on almost total economic and technological reliance upon the United States.

The scene was then ready for a dramatic switch of strategies. The stupor and rage which overtook the Arab states of the "Rejection Front" and the Soviet Union, and even the embarrassment of the United States, when Sadat decided to come to Jerusalem were not only due to his unexpected gesture but to their realization that the balance of power in the Middle East could be revolutionized.

If Cairo and Jerusalem could find a way to compose their unnatural and unhistorical struggle, they would make it difficult for all the other interested parties to meddle in the waters of the Middle Eastern pool, still unfilled, since the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, by a stable authority. In terms of their joint potential power - demography, technology, military superiority, modernizing elites - Egypt and Israel might even hope through their cooperation to play the political role of the Turks in the Middle East.

Is this historical vision, this possibility of sublimating a nationalistic conflict on a higher plane, now in danger of being spoiled by the inadequacy of the two main protagonists?

Sadat has recognized Israel's need for security, but at the same time has pressed for a solution to the question of the Palestine Arabs and for Israel's withdrawal to former boundaries - demands which, apart from their present impracticability, look like the strategy of Clausewitz in reverse: to use peace as a means to continue war.

Did Begin, for his part, miss a historic opportunity when, in the Knesset, he spoke of the rights of the Jews over Palestine without mentioning the rights of Egypt to a natural leadership in the area, a leadership to which no Hebrew state has reason to object? Will parochial issues undermine the unique opportunity to reshape the future of the area without bloodshed?

For Begin and Sadat, their present paths could lead to the painful anticlimax of trading the suddenly acquired option of real national emancipation for the less innovative - and, in the short term, less risky - good old clientism.