If ever there was an example of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory -- with the damage yet to be calculated -- it was the sudden end to the rescue of starving Jews from Ethiopia by the state of Israel.

Premature publicity has for the moment, perhaps permanently, edned the operation, with thousands of Ethiopian Jews still in Ethiopia or in refuge camps in Sudan. But this is less a case where irresponsible media, chomping at the bit to go with a story, have smothered a humanitarian effort. Rather, the rescue of Ethiopian Jews was crushed in the stampede of Jewish organizations and Israeli political parties to raised money and claim credit before the effort had been completed.

There is no lack of culpritis. Israeli diplomats, Reagan administration officials and American Jewish leaders have singled out Leon Dulzin, chairman of Israel's quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, as an immediate target of biting criticism. the Jewish Agency, funded largely by charitable contributions from Jews around the world, is involved in the absorption of new immigrants to Israel.

Dulzin spoke publicly about the rescue operation at a widely -- attended fund-raising meeting in New York last November just when the effort airlift was beginning. Incredibly, the New York office of the World Zionist Organization, which connected to the Jewish Agency, then circulated a press release high-lighting his comments.

Although Dulzin's remarks would have the most serious impact, he wasnot alone in spreading the world. Almost from the moment the rescue got started on Nov. 20, American Jewish fundraisers were very active in talking about it. The airlift was a natural peg on which to organize a new fundraising campaign. Some fundraisers were discreet, others less so.

Selected groups of Jewish fundraising leaders were even flown to Israel to witness the arrival of the planes carrying the Ethiopian Jews. These eyewitnesses later returned to the United States to tell of their encounters. With so much supposedly ''rivate'' discussion of the airlift, it was only a matter of time before the secrecy lid would be lifted. What was somewhat ironic, of course, was that Jewish organziations were the first to do so -- not the American media.

Based on the World Zionist Organization's press release, the New York Jewish Week on Nov. 23 ran a front-page story quoting extensively from Dulzin's remarks. ''One of the ancient tribes of Israel is due to return to its homeland,'' Dulzin was quoted as saying. According to the article, Dulzin said that ''when the true story of the Jews of Ethiopia is told, we will take pride in what we have already achieved in this most difficult and complex rescue operation.''

Wolf Blitzer is the Washington correspondent for The Jersusalem Post.

Later, World Zionist Organization officials in New York insisted that Dulzin's remarks had been ''off the record,'' not for publication. The circulation of a press release had been a mistake, they said. On Dec. 6, however, the Washington Jewish Week ran its own front-page story describing the airlift in even greater detail. ''The rescue of a substantial number of Ethiopia Jews has begun,'' the newspaper said. ''An operation far more systematic than previous efforts is under way.''

The Washington Jewish Week published the story despite pressure not to from Jewish community leaders and Iraeli diplomats nervous about the publicity.

By the time that the Washington Jewish Week story appeared, however, word of the airlift had already circulated throughout much of the American Jewish community. It was also, of course, well known is Israel where planeloads of Ethiopian Jews were arriving almost daily.

The Israeli news media had agreed not to publicize the historic development, lest the airlift and Jewish lives be endangered. Israeli editors and jornalists were not alone in their discredtion. Major American news organizaitons were also holding back on the story.

Bernard Gwertzman of The New York Times and William Beecher of The Boston Globe were among many American journalists who knew of Operation Moses but waited before putting it into print.

But when Gwertzman discovered that the airlift had been discussed openly by Dulzin and the reported in the Jewish weeklies, he and his editors went public. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, The Times ran a front page story headlined ''Airlift to Israel is Reported Taking Thousands of Jews From Ethiopia.'' In the article, Gwertzman pointedly referred to the earlier comments by Dulzin and the subsequent Washington Jewish Week article.

A day after the first Times story appeared, Beecher went with his own story in The Boston Globe. he quoted diplomatic sources as saying that the U.S. ''acted as intermediary in getting Sudanese officials and Israeli agents together to set up the complex logistics for the humanitarian mission.'' Beecher also quoted one American official as ominously warning: ''We've got to get them out as quickly as possible before it comes to public attention and the whole thing collapses.'' Other major U.S. news organziations then picked up on the story -- but only for a few days.

By the third week in December, a relative silence on the entire matter had returned. The airlift had even been accelerated. State Department policymakers, Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders, though still very much concerned about all the earlier publicity, breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But then, a series of mistakes occurred in Israel, including an interview with another senior Jewish Agency official, Yehuda Dominitz, in Nekuda, a West Bank settlement publication. In the interview, Dominitz spoke of the arrival of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. That inexplicably triggered the easing of Israeli censorship. ABC News, for example, aired a lengthy ''exclusive'' report on the absorption of the Ethiopian Jews on Jan. 2.

Israeli officials and others in Washington were amazed the Israeli censor had cleared the story. U.S. diplomats who had played a delicate and important behind-the-scenes diplomatic role in organizing the airlift were shocked. The next day, the Israeli government called a full-scale press conference about it. Within a matter of hours, the entire cover had been lifted.

Two days later the airlift was suspended. U.S. officials and many others believe that the airlift could have continued -- despite all the publicity -- if that the Israeli government had not officially confirmed its existence. The Sudanese and the Ethiopian regimes -- for whatever reasons -- had swallowed the earlier stories. But, according to U.S. officials, they could not ignore the Israeli government's statements.

Why did the Israeli government lift the curtain? Most point to domestic Israeli politics -- with Labor and Likud supporters prematurely jockeying for credit in saving the Ethiopian Jews.

With hindsight what becomes painfully clear is that, whatever the explanation, a major blunder of tragic proportions occurred.

On Jan. 8, Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the Knesset that he was personally responsible for authorizing the government's controversial news conference. He had been informed that the entire subject had in fact already been published throughout the world. ''To focus attention where it should be and to divert it from delicate aspects, and to put matters in their proper perspective, I approved, after consulting with the relevent bodies, the holding of a press conference and the announcement of the cabinet secretary,'' he said.

''Although all the reasons cannot be pubicized,'' he continued, ''I can note that both the earlier restraint and the subsequent publication were designed to serve the same objective . . .'' Peres pledged to do whatever was necessary to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

What then is the current assessment about the future? Can the rescue operation be revived? Authoritative U.S. and Israeli officials as well as others who ahve closely followed developments believe that the situation is by no means hopeless. The airlift can be reived, provided that the focus of international news media attention can be diverted for some weeks.

The Reagan administration -- the White House as well as the State Department -- is certainly prepared to cooperative, although U.S. officials openly acknowledge their disappointment in Israeli's failure to keep the matter secret, as promised. There are critical but obvious lessons for all concerned to the learned from this incident. If the airlift should resume, they should not be forgotten.