JERUSALEM, DEC. 26 -- Israel is signaling that it will not launch a preemptive strike against Iraq, despite repeated threats from Baghdad to attack it at the onset of any military conflict in the Persian Gulf.

Instead, Israel is now seeking to deter Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with warnings that it will respond massively if Iraqi missiles or bombs are aimed at its territory. Although they concede that such an attack is possible, Israeli defense officials are telling people here that any Iraqi offensive is unlikely to wreak much damage or cause many casualties in Israel.

"We do not rule out the possibility of the Iraqis striking at us first," Defense Minister Moshe Arens told parliament Tuesday. "Saddam Hussein's missiles have the range to reach Israel. But their capability is very restricted. If we are hit we shall strike back. But there is no need for panic."

Government officials and defense analysts here say the Israeli strategy appears carefully calibrated to satisfy appeals by the United States that Israel stay out of the gulf conflict, while maintaining the military's "freedom of action" in the event Israel is attacked.

In what analysts here said was an attempt to dramatize that stand, Israel test-fired a medium-range surface-to-surface missile last weekend, and reports in Washington said the United States was not told of the launching in advance. The launch followed by several weeks an unannounced Iraqi test-firing of a medium-range missile that could be used against Israel.

{Iraq test-fired another surface-to-surface missile Wednesday, but it was aimed away from the multinational forces in Saudi Arabia and landed in Iraq, the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said, according to the Associated Press. "The firing appeared to be part of an additional training or testing mission," the U.S. statement said. It gave no further details on the type of missile or the methods used to detect it.}

Last month, Israeli defense officials began to hint that they might consider preemptive action against Iraqi missiles aimed at Israel, in part because of frustration over what they said was the lack of strategic coordination between Israel and the U.S. military. Officials said they were unhappy with delays in receiving U.S. satellite surveillance of Iraqi missile sites and with the absence of any planning between the two countries on how to coordinate their actions in the event of war.

However, senior defense sources now say coordination between the Pentagon and Israeli military has been stepped up in response to the Israeli complaints. "Basically the problems have been solved," one source said. "And that means that we feel more secure and are more ready to cooperate with what Washington wants from us."

Israeli military sources would not confirm reports from Washington that the United States initially failed to detect the Iraqi missile launch, a failure that could raise questions about Washington's ability to give Israel advance notice of an attack. However, one military source suggested that Israel was not entirely dependent on the United States to detect an Iraqi missile launch. "There are other ways of finding out about these things," the source said.

During a visit to Washington earlier this month by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, President Bush "strongly reaffirmed to Shamir the U.S. commitment to Israel's security if attacked by the Arabs," the newspaper Al Hamishmar reported. "This commitment along with the Bush-Shamir agreement on strategic cooperation if a war breaks out should provide a sufficient basis for Israel to maintain the low profile and refrain from creating unnecessary tensions."

In recent days, Defense Minister Moshe Arens and other senior officials have stressed that Israel will not initiate military action against Iraqi targets, including the two missile bases in western Iraq from which Saddam could launch a strike on Tel Aviv or other Israeli sites. The United States opposes any such Israeli move, fearing it could transform the gulf crisis from a standoff between Iraq and the U.S.-Arab alliance to an Arab-Israeli conflict.

Last weekend, Saddam told Spanish television that Tel Aviv would be the first Iraqi target in the event of war, repeating a threat Iraq had made several times. But when asked if Israel would seek to head off such an attack, Arens told Israeli radio that "we are not in the business of launching preemptive strikes."

Transport Minister Moshe Katsav elaborated on the statement Tuesday, saying Israel "had made a commitment" not to carry out a preemptive attack. Military sources refused to comment on the statement, but analysts here speculated that Katsav was referring to a private pledge by Israel to the United States.

In the last two days, Arens and senior military commanders have been playing down the Iraqi threat, trying to counteract Israeli news reports suggesting war is imminent. "We must steady our nerves, keep cool and look at this crisis in proportion," Arens told the parliament Tuesday, "since it could drag on for a long time."

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, told Israeli reporters that the gulf crisis was still in a stage of "psychological war" and that a shooting war was still not imminent. He added: "We must remember that Iraq's ability to harm us is limited while our ability to seriously harm the Iraqi homefront is proven beyond declarations. Saddam Hussein understands this simple equation."

Former defense minister Yitzhak Rabin said that Israel had not faced such a serious crisis since the 1973 Middle East war, when it was simultaneously attacked by Syria and Egypt. But he also cautioned against a precipitate response to any Iraqi attack, pointing out that any Iraqi-Israeli exchange was likely to draw Jordan into a gulf war, since it lies between the two countries.

Washington Post staff writer Guy Gugliotta reported from Riyadh:

Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Coury, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia, said today that Saddam wishes to avoid conflict in the gulf in the near future. But if war appears inevitable, Coury said, Saddam could order an attack against Israel in a desperate attempt to break the alliance between the United States and its Arab allies.

"We see absolutely no indication that Saddam Hussein intends to withdraw from Kuwait," Coury said. "Rather, he continues to pour both men and materiel into the country" to strengthen his defenses.

Coury and other U.S. military officers, speaking at a Central Command press briefing, echoed other recent assessments of Iraqi strength and intentions in the gulf, underscoring the bleak long-term prospects for a peaceful solution.

"For the immediate future he {Saddam} will attempt to avoid conflict while working to erode both U.S. public support and allied cooperation," Coury said. "As a last resort, if he fears war is inevitable, he could initiate open conflict, which may include a provocation with Israel as an attempt to decouple the coalition forces."

U.S. officials have said a preemptive strike against Israel could drive a wedge between the United States and Arab allies -- especially Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

But while Coury described an Iraqi move against Israel as "a very realistic possibility," he refused to speculate on the nature of such an attack or assess its chances.