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In the shadows of the conflict with the Palestinians and preparations for war in Iraq, Israel is conducting a fascinating propaganda war with Syria. The struggle is for the opinion of the American public and administration, and has clear targets. Israel wants Syria placed firmly in the lineup of targets in the "new order" the Americans want to dictate in the Middle East. The Syrians want to be left in peace and allowed to maintain their Alawite regime at home and their de facto control of Lebanon.

Despite the home court advantage Israel enjoys in the U.S., the Syrians are winning on points. Bashar Assad dared to say "no" to the Bush administration when he was asked to close the Islamic Jihad and Hamas offices in Damascus and to stop helping Hezbollah. He avoided making any promise to halt the flow of oil from Iraq, and came out of it all without a scratch.

Washington gave him credit for helping with intelligence on Al-Qaida, approved of his contribution to keeping the tense northern Israeli border quiet, and put the Syria file back in the drawer. This American behavior has caused deep frustration in Jerusalem.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi, commander of Military Intelligence, is conducting Israel's public relations. In a meeting with reporters two weeks ago, he listed all of Syria's sins - support for terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction, and trying to disrupt American policies in the region.

"Syria continues to present itself as someone sitting on the fence, even though its policies put it squarely in the center of the axis of evil," said Ze'evi. Between the lines of what he said was criticism of Washington, which hasn't put Assad into the dubious club of his friends and allies in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

Last week Military Intelligence issued a detailed report on Syrian behavior, for dissemination as public relations material to Israeli legations overseas. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stepped up the tone, claiming Iraqi biological and chemical weapons were smuggled into Syria, and spoke about joint training missions by the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon. It didn't help. The U.S. may not have a lot of sympathy for Syria, but the administration ignored Sharon's demand "to isolated Assad" until he betters his ways.

Damascus meanwhile conducts a counter-effort. The official Syrian web site mentions the Israeli rivals when it refers in somewhat clumsy English to the crimes of "Israeli terrorism" having roots as deep as Zionism. This month the Syrians renewed their periodic dialogue with the U.S., despite opposition inside the Syrian regime to dialogue with Washington on the eve of a war in Iraq.

The Syrians have put their foreign ministry spokeswoman, Buteina Sha'aban opposite Ze'evi. She's best remembered as the translator for the late Hafez Assad when he met with U.S. presidents and secretaries of state. She used to spice her translations up with comments like "what a stupid idea, Mr. President," when detailing in Arabic the peace ideas mediators brought from Israel.

Now she's busy rebuffing the Israeli charges. In an article she recently published in the U.S. she explains that Syria understood the dangers of Islamic terror before the U.S., but was criticized for it, apparently an attempt by the regime to "launder" the massacre in Hama and to join the coalition of the good.

This week she hosted a Washington Post correspondent and tried to convince him that the war in Iraq is unnecessary, But she avoided direct criticism of the U.S. "When the shooting starts, we'll consider our steps," she said.

Israel believes the Syrians feel the pressure and say that the real campaign is about "the day after" the war in Iraq. Israeli officials have already presented the U.S. administration with their proposals for dealing with Syria and Iran. But it's doubtful the U.S. will take time out to punish Syria, and Assad could yet find another trick to please the Americans.

It's also possible Ze'evi has another goal entirely - to prepare the groundwork for a vehement Israeli reaction in the north, in case the border heats up during a war in Iraq.