A drama began four month ago in a nasty confrontation between Jewish leaders and Health, Education and Welfare Department Secretary Joseph Califano is nearing a climax in the Oval Office when President Carter - urged on by Califano - is expected to back racial quotas in a Supreme Court test.

Leaders of eight national Jewish organizations left a June 6 meeting with Califano complaining about the Secretary's "insensitivity" and "inflexibility." What most surprised them was Califano's revelation thjat he wanted the government to support the University of California's quota system on admissions - the famous Bakke case before the Supreme Court.

The President must now decide whether to support Califano. Senior presidential aides insist no decision has been made. But insiders at HEW and the Justice Department take it for granted Carter will intervene against Allan Bakke, a white applicant denied admission to the University of California Medical School to make room for a black applicant with inferior entrance qualifications to fill university racial quota.

If Bakke loses, Califano's HEW will demand that all universities impose racial quotas. Since that runs counter to the anti-quota philosophy expressed by both the President and Attorney General Griffin Bell, why are they ending up on the pro-quota said? Nobody is quite sure, but the best answer may be the persuasive powers of Joe Califano: Mr. Quota.

With characteristic vigor, Califano opened the fight March 18 by openly endorsing quotas, then on March 30 backed away from the word "quota" - but not from the concept. Jewish leaders promptly requested a meeting. They were not reassured by Califano's June 5 speech at City College of New York when he supported "goals" instead of "quotas."

The confrontation in Califano's office two days later was a disaster. As described in a July 13 memorandum by Ira Giffen of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): "The meeting . . . was a disheartening experience . . . I left . . . convinced that Secretary Califano will push reverse discrimination and quota systems although, for public-relations purposes, he may call them by other names. Our appeals for justice, fair play, reasonableness and, indeed, logic, seemed to fall upon deaf ears."

Larry Lavinsky of the ADL opened the meeting with a plea to prohibit colleges from requiring "racial, ethnic and religious indentification" by student applicants. He declared such identification violates "the right of privacy and needlessly poses the danger of discrimination."

Giffen's memo continues: "The Secretary's response was not all responsive. . . . To our utter dismay, he told us that he had already requested the Department of Justice to enter the Bakke case in support of the University of California."

Califano "seemed to believe" racial indentification is required by statute, which is not the case. "It was my conclusion," Giffen's account continues, "that the Secretary either does not know the statutes . . . or else he chooses to misconstrue them." According to Giffen, the Secretary said "he was doing no more than what the Congress and the courts required and he advised us to take our concerns to the Congress.

That this was disingenuous was suggested July 27 when Califano addressed the National Urban League. He asserted he had helped kill a congressional proposal that he incorrectly described as prohibitng him "from using any funds for affirmative-action programs." In truth, the amendment would have prevented HEW funds from the enforcing "ratios, quotas or other numerical requirements" for student admission - but would permit "goals and timetables," in other words, affirmative action.

On July 25, seven major Jewish leaders wrote Califano urging support for Bakke's anti-quota position; the letter was not even acknowledge. Since then, the Solicitor General's office has prepared a brief taking the anti-Bakke position. Califano and high Justice Department officials are certain the government will intervene that way.

The ultimate decision is the President's, but that does not encourage anti-quota forces. "I am sure the decision will be solely political," one embittered Jewish leader told us, meaning Carter will offer blacks in quotas what he does not given in social spending program. The Jewish lobby presumably will not protest strenuously because of larger interests in the Mideast.

But more is involved than pitting racial groups against each other. Edward Bennett Williams, Califano's former law partner, stated it well in a speech last October: "The total egalitarians miss the point. They would divide the wealth equally, impose quotas and ratios in education, in employment and in the political process, regardless of merit, over looking the crucial fact that all human progress throughout human history owes its origin to the talented and the enterprising."

Although it is hard to imagine Jimmy Carter and Griffin Bell disagreeing with those words, they are headed pell mell in the opposite direction - thanks to a strong push from Mr. Quota.