JERUSALEM, NOV. 23 -- The Israeli government is fuming about the decision of President Bush to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad, and senior officials are warning that the United States is making a mistake in its courtship of Syria.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told reporters Thursday that he hoped the Bush-Assad meeting "will not encourage the aggressive policies of Syria against Israel." And his defense minister, Moshe Arens, went further, saying that "in the Middle East, the meeting is the message."

Arens added, "If Bush meets with {Saudi} King Fahd, with {Egyptian} President {Hosni} Mubarak and now with Assad, but pointedly does not meet with Prime Minister Shamir -- and the same is true of Secretary of State {James A.} Baker, who has never visited Israel -- there is a danger of the wrong message being sent."

Shamir and his supporters have been particularly irked because Bush has not spoken to Shamir in months and has not yet invited the Israeli prime minister to a White House meeting during Shamir's scheduled visit to the United States early next month. But Bush said today in Cairo, before traveling to meet with Assad in Geneva, that he would be willing to meet with Shamir during his visit.

Israeli commentators have taken the Bush-Assad meeting as another sign that the Persian Gulf crisis, once seen as a boon to Israel, is instead wreaking havoc in its relationship with the United States and bringing windfall gains to Syria, its archenemy. Several politicians and local experts expressed concern that the Bush administration might seek to reward Syria by agreeing to press Israel for withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it occupied in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981.

Some government officials sought to strike a conciliatory note, pointing out that the growing U.S. ties to Syria should be seen in the context of Bush's drive to maintain the anti-Iraq coalition. Shamir himself echoed this line, telling reporters that "the paramount goal, over and above all else, at this time in the region, is the existence and strengthening of the international coalition" against Iraq.

However, other officials privately described the Bush-Assad meeting as a new blow to the deeply strained relations between Shamir and Bush, particularly because of Shamir's difficulties in obtaining a presidential audience of his own. "They are always doing new things to humiliate us," said one senior official who asked not to be named.

Israeli officials argue that the Bush administration is misjudging Assad and Syria in the same way that it miscalculated about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein before his invasion of Kuwait. Having once dismissed Israeli arguments that it was impossible to work with Saddam, the officials say, American policy makers have now lurched to the opposite extreme, demonizing Saddam while ignoring the hazards of encouraging his rival in Damascus.