Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Saddam Hussein communicated secretly with him in 1998 to ease worries about a possible Iraqi attack on Israel.

Netanyahu said it was thought that Saddam might launch a missile attack on Israel, as he had done during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, because of tensions over U.N. weapons inspections. Netanyahu said the Iraqi ruler sent a secret message assuring Israel that he had no such intention.

"I sent him a message and told him that this was a very wise decision on his part, so that he could understand what the significance would be if he acted against us," Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio.

Tensions hit a peak after the United States and Britain launched four days of airstrikes against Iraq in December 1998 to punish Saddam for refusing to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

In the Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities, causing extensive damage but few casualties.

At the time, Saddam was trying to provoke Israel into joining in the war, so that Arab countries would quit the American-led coalition. The then-Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, refrained from retaliating, bowing to strong pressure from Washington.

Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996-99, said the decision was understandable, but that Israel had paid a heavy price for it.

Failure to respond to an Arab missile attack severely eroded Israel's deterrent power, he said.

"In the psychological climate of the Middle East it was perceived as an invitation to new attacks," he said.

This was why Iraq, Iran and other Mideast countries had been acquiring missiles on a large scale in the 10 years since the Gulf War, he said.

Netanyahu, who is expected to challenge current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the leadership of the Likud party and the office of premier, said he would never tolerate a missile attack without responding.

"The response has to come," he said.