Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a surprise trip to Switzerland today and met for thee hours with Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who has been in close contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israeli sources here said the African leader briefed Rabin on the latest views of the PLO but Rabin and officials in Jerusalem played down this aspect of the meeting, saying it was concerned primarily with re-establishing Israeli's shattered ties with black Africa.

Rabin, facing a leadership challenge from within his Labor Party in the upcoming Israeli elections, drew criticism for the unannounced trip from political apponents, some of the whom called it a "political gimmick."

Just 10 days ago, PLO representatives visited Houphouet-Boigny, who has a villa in Geneva, to deliver a personal message from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat message was "related to the current conditions in the region."

Israeli sources here said Rabin explained Israel's views on solving the Palestinian problem and told Houphouet-Boigny that he did not expect peace moves in the Middle East to take shape before September. This was because of coming visits to the area by world figures and the Israeli elections in May, the sources said.

In an Israeli television interview after the meeting, Rabin said he considered the meeting to be part of Israel's efforts to renew diplomatic ties with African countries that severed relations with the Jewish state at the time of the 1973 Middle East war.

Asked whether such meetings could also aid in the arranging of talks between Arab countries and Israel, Rabin said he was less optimistic on that point than on the possible resumption of ties with black Africa.

A joint communique issued after the meeting said Houphouet-Boigny and Rabin had "conducted a profound exchange of views on the middle East situation and diplomatic efforts for peace in the region."

It said that the two had "agreed that dialogue is the best method for achieving peace in the Middle East and this on the basis of U.S. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338." Israel and the Arab countries have accepted these resolutions but the Palestinians have not.

Washington Post special correspondent Yuval Eliver reported from Jerusalem :

Many observers here feel that the Geneva meeting may give an important boost to Rabin, whose political future is in peril.Rabin has been challenged by Defense Minister Shimon Peres for his party's leadership and in recent days it looked as though Peres were gaining ground.

Since previous attempts to make contracts with African leaders have failed because of advance publicity, only a few people in Israel were told of today's meeting before it took place. Not until last night, a few hours before this 2 a.m. take off, did Rabin notify Cabinet members that he was going to Geneva.

The meeting is considered the most important breakthrough so far for Israeli efforts to restore relations with the black nations of Africa.

Israeli leaders have met with other black Africa. Israel leaders have met withbut the meetings have produced little and have ended without public statements.

At the peak of its black African involvement, Israel had diplomatic relations with 27 countries and extensive technical assistance programs in most of them. Nearly all broke off relations with Israel in 1973 to demonstrate support for the Arabs and Israel now has diplomtic ties with only three black African states: Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Israel maintains economic, tourism and aid programs with several of the black African countries, however, including the Ivory Coast.