Despite reported threats by Saddam Hussein, Israeli leaders said they did not believe Iraq would launch a pre-emptive strike, but they warned that Israel's military would respond with great force if attacked.

While maintaining the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf was higher than at any other time since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir urged Israelis Monday not to worry because the Israeli military was "ready and prepared."Even before the Persian Gulf crisis erupted, the Iraqi president had threatened to wipe out half of Israel with chemical weapons if it attacked an Arab country.

"There are people who speak about the possibility that Saddam Hussein will launch a pre-emptive attack" against Israel, Defense Minister Moshe Arens told Israeli high school students in Holon, a town slightly south of Tel Aviv. "But I don't think it is very probable.

"But of course, with that man, one cannot know. Anything can happen, " Arens said, adding Iraq had a "very limited capability of reaching Israel with its missiles."

Israeli leaders have emphasized during the crisis that the country was maintaining a low profile. But at the same time, Israeli officials also have repeatedly said the military could defend the country.

Israel has distributed gas masks and civil defense kits to large parts of the country since the Iraqi invasion.

"He (Saddam) knows that Israel does not participate in this confrontation," Shamir said. "He wants to drag us into this confrontation in order to give it the character of an Israeli-Arab confrontation."

At Camp David, President Bush was reportedly told that some military leaders believe U.S. combat units in the gulf will not be ready for all-out war with Iraq by the Jan. 15 deadline imposed by the United Nations.

Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, deputy U.S. commander in Saudi Arabia, made a similar assessment last week during Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's visit.

Saddam called home his ambassadors from the United States, the United Nations and several Western European countries. Iraqi officials were not saying what would be discussed, but the call indicated Saddam could be planning a major diplomatic offensive.