As diplomatic theater of the absurd, the "glitch' or "communications failure" that caused President Carter's March 3 disavowal of a U.S. vote for a United Nations resolution criticizing Israel stands in a class by itself.

It wasn't just that Carter's U-turn managed to alienate both Israel and the Arab world. The incident seemed almost a self-parody of the flip-flops and zigzags that Carter's critics charge are the hallmarks of his foreign policy.

Nor was it simply the result of a misunderstanding between Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. In retrospect it now seems clear that the administration made a highly sensitive policy decision in slapdash fashion without thinking through the potential consequences.

The incident stemmed from a U.S. decision, urged by Vance and tentatively approved by Carter, to reprimand Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for his policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the U.S. view, that policy threatends hopes of an agreement on limited autonomy for the Palestinian inhabitants of these territories and has made it increasingly difficult to coax such key Arab countries as Saudi Arabia and Jordan into cooperating with the autonomy talks between Israel and Egypt.

U.S. concern over Arab world attitudes has been increasing since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pushed the administration into a top-priority bid for influence among the countries surrounding the vital Persian Gulf area. To demonstrate U. S. understanding of Arab concerns, it was decided that the administration would back a Security Council resolution criticizing the Israeli settlements as illegal.

But, U.S. sources now concede, they failed to take into account the possibility that Israel might react by threatening to scuttle the autonomy talks, which have a May target date forcompletion. Such a move would put Carter on a collision course with the Israelis in the midst of a presidential election year.

Because U.S. disapproval of the settlements policy already was well known, Carter apparently assumed the Israeli reaction would by angry but within reasonable bounds. He didn't reckon the now infamous communications "glitch."

During the Camp David summit talks,Carter had given Begin an apparent commitment, the exact nature ofwhich is not clear, to avoid public restatements of past U.S. policy assertions that East Jerusalem is "occupied territory." In considering the U.N. resolution, the president instructed Vance that references to Jerusalem had to be removed before the United States could vote for it.

The president's order came after Vance informed him that the draft text contained a paragraph about religious freedom in Jerusalem. Vance, it since has been made clear, thought Carter's instructions referred only to that paragraph.

Carter never read the text of the resolution, relying instead on Vance to keep him informed. But, accoring toreliable sources, while the text was being negotiated at the United Nations, Vance became preoccupied with problems in the Iran crisis, and he maynot have read it in its final form either.

What slipped through the cracks in the communications between Carter and Vance was that the resolution containedseven references to Jerusalem in addition to the offending paragraph. They remained in the text after U.N. Ambassador Donald F. McHenry succeeded at the last minute in getting the objectionable paragraph removed.

It's not clear whether Vance didn't know that the other Jerusalem references were in the resolution or whether he was aware of them but assumed they weren't covered by Carter's order. Vance is known to have said privately that nothing in the resolution, as it finally emerged, was contrary to his understanding of U.S. policy or to Carter's commitment to Begin at Camp David.

At any rate, on the morning of the vote -- Saturday, March 1 - Vance called Carter, who was weekending at Camp David, and told him the Jerusalem problem had been resolved. Carter then gave the go-ahead for Vance to tell McHenry to vote for theresolution.

By the time Carter returned to Washington Monday morning, March 3, a firestorm of protest was building up in Israel. According to administration sources, the president was stunned when he finally read the resolution and found it studded with references to Jerusalem as "occupied territory."

He also learned that Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron had met separately that morning with Vice President Mondale and Sol M. Linowitz Carter's special Mideast negotiator.

Although he made no overt threats, Evron's message, which he reinforced in a brief meeting with Carter that afternoon made clear that if the U.S. action were allowed to stand, the president could forget about any progress in the autonomy talks -- not just by May but for the foreseeable future

While Carter was contemplating the possible collapse of the Middle East peace process, with which he is so closely identified, his reelection campaign manager, Robert S. Strauss, weighed in with a warning that the U.N. vote could have devastating repercussions among Jewish voters in several upcoming key primaries.

That touched off a hasty reassessmentthat had the administration's foreign policy and political strategists scurrying in and out of the White House for the next several hours. Thequestion beore them: should Carter try to ride out the storm or capitulate to its pressures?

The answer came at 10 p.m. when the White House issued a statement on Carter's behalf saying the vote had been a mistake. The next day, Vance accepted responsibility for "the failure in communications," and the administrsation has spent much of its time since then struggling to deflect the charges of "blunder" and "disaster" assaulting it from all sides.