EVERYONE who followed the unfolding of the hostage crisis over the past three weeks knows that there was a trade of American hostages held by the Shiites in Beirut for Shiite hostages held by the Israelis in Israel. But every high official in both Washington and Tel Aviv insisted, and is still insisting, that there was no such thing.
Why this record-setting insistence on a fiction when everyone can see that it is a fiction?
Answer: Shimon Peres is prime minister of Israel. He is regarded in official Washington as the most rational and reasonable prime minister Israel has had in a long time. He is believed to be a man of peace, who would if he could bring about that will-o'-the-wisp of American diplomacy for a generation, a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Mr. Peres heads an uneasy coalition with the Likud party of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, now headed by Yitzhak Shamir. The Likud would be delighted to break the coalition and force an election. Any show of weakness by Mr. Peres could become the issue that would bring Likud back to power, and thus, in Washington eyes, spoil the best chance yet for that elusive peace.
The hostage deal was a desperately dangerous one for Mr. Peres to handle. The Shiites brought into Israel with the retreating Israel forces were taken there for a practical Israeli purpose. Israel is negotiating with the Shiites over the future security of Israel's northern border. To have more than 700 Shiites in an Israeli concentration camp was to hold a fistful of trumps in the negotiations with the Shiite leaders.
For Washington to ask Israel to give up some of its hostages to save Americans was to ask it to spend its own bargaining chips for another country's interests. In Likud eyes the deal is a squandering of assets.
Even more damaging to Likud interests would be precisely what has happened, a reopening of constructive American communication with Syria, which is currently regarded in Likud quarters as Israel's most dangerous enemy.
US relations with Syria reached their lowest point during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Syrian antiaircraft fire brought down a US Navy fighter plane behind Syrian lines. The plane was not deliberately aiming at Syrian soldiers. But its bombs were aimed in that direction. The US was on the fringe of war with Syria. (The Rev. Jesse Jackson brought the pilot home.)
Today that condition has been reversed. President Reagan has thanked President Assad of Syria for his help in negotiating the release of the American hostages. President Reagan has asked President Assad to try to help in obtaining the release of the seven other Americans still held somewhere in the Middle East, presumably by Shiites of the more radical fundamentalist type.
There are two scenarios for future Arab-Israeli relations. In the one Washington favors, Prime Minister Peres gets into serious talks with Jordan about an arrangement under which Jordan resumes sovereignty over the parts of the West Bank inhabited predominantly by Arabs. At some point Syria is persuaded to enter the talks. The goal would be an arrangement along the lines of Camp David, by which Israel would trade occupied territory for peace with its neighbors.
In the other scenario the Peres coalition breaks up, Likud wins the election and returns to power, and Israel continues to resettle the occupied territories and refuses to consider the return of any of those territories to the Arabs.
The most prominent spokesman in the US for the Likud point of view is Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine. He called the hostage exchange ``a ransom of shame.''
Had his advice been taken, the hostages would still be in Beirut, dead or alive, and American bombs would again be blocking the road to a possible peace in the Middle East.
The fiction of the ``no deal'' was deemed necessary to protect Mr. Peres from Likud maneuverings.