PARIS -- Just as Yasser Arafat and his cohorts in the PLO seemed to be slipping into a well deserved corner of oblivion, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has come galloping to their rescue. In Middle East politics, opposites may not attract but they frequently need each other.

The spontaneous revolt burning so intensely in Gaza and the West Bank signifies a continuing decline of the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has had to scramble to try to catch up with events in the occupied territories. But Shamir has hauled the PLO back into the spotlight by crediting outsiders with stirring up this trouble.

Arafat's menacing stubble and delusions of revolutionary grandeur are still necessary to Shamir in the interlocking political games he must play both on the international scene and at home, where he maneuvers to keep power in his Likud coalition and then in the national elections scheduled for the autumn.

Continuity is as vital to Shamir as it is elusive for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Shamir's partner and rival from the Labor Party in Israel's seesaw government. Shamir exists in a time tunnel, burrowing on to extend the present seamlessly into the future. The wave of rioting has persuaded him that change is neither possible nor necessary now, while convincing Peres of the opposite.

Arab teen-agers hurling rocks at fully armed Israeli soldiers have again brought the differences between the two main protagonists of the October elections into full view. They are differences that will play a crucial role in shaping the Israeli response to the current uprising, and to the choice the electorate will make about Israel's future this autumn.

There is nothing sentimental in Shamir's refusal to say goodbye to Arafat. He sees that the recurring images on the world's television screens of bullets versus rocks chip away at the sympathy and support that Israel has enjoyed abroad as a vulnerable and democratic nation in a region beset by violence and tyranny.

"There is nothing fragile about a country which can crush its Arab opponents in four wars {and} which can occupy Arab lands against the wishes of their Palestinian inhabitants for more than 20 years," Nicholas Ashford, foreign editor of the London newspaper The Independent and a long-time admirer of Israel, wrote this week.

Shamir and his supporters hope to halt that erosion by breathing life into Arafat's political corpse. An Israeli soldier in Gaza does not make a choice to shoot a hateful but unarmed teen-ager. He is shooting to prevent the PLO from taking over Tel Aviv.

Peres comes closer to recognizing the reality that those teen-agers and the frustrations that drive them to risk death are the products of 20 years of Israeli occupation and of a recent realization that all of the outside forces they had counted on to deliver them -- the PLO, the Arab states, Russian military support, American diplomatic efforts, oil -- have failed. It is a struggle they must take to Israel.

While Shamir exists in a time tunnel, Peres exists in quicksilver. He is a totally existential creature, swinging from opportunism and cynicism to moments of great vision and back without a pause. You sense he is capable of anything.

I asked him some months back why he was pushing for diplomatic movement between Israel and the Arabs when the situation was so clearly and hopelessly deadlocked. Precisely because it is clearly and hopelessly deadlocked, he responded.

The uprising in Gaza has proved his point. In a television appearance last week, he floated the ice-breaking idea of demilitarizing Gaza and of actively pursuing a Jordanian security role there. His criticisms of Shamir's time-tunnel approach were on the mark: The 600,000 Arabs crowded into that desolate strip "will be 1 million in 12 years and the demographic density will be greater than in Hong Kong," Peres said. "When the prime minister says that Gaza is an integral part of Israel, does he mean that the million people who will live there in 12 years are inseparable from Israel? Is this the present he wants to give Israel?"

Partly because Peres is right on this, he probably has a good chance of losing in October. Walter Mondale and the American electorate gave the world a good recent example of what most often happens to politicians who try to sell a policy of rushing toward the inevitable sooner rather than later. Keeping Arafat to kick around is easier.