President Clinton will call an unprecedented meeting of Middle East government heads Wednesday in Egypt to launch a regional assault on terrorism in the wake of four deadly bombings in Israel, an administration official said late Thursday.
The administration is expected to announce the meeting of Arab and Israeli leaders today.
U.S. officials hope that the leaders will develop cooperative steps to control Hamas, the Islamic extremist organization that has claimed responsibility for the recent carnage in Israel.
But even if no concrete programs come out of the meeting, U.S. officials said, just convening it will have a tremendous symbolic impact as Arab leaders side with their traditional enemy, Israel, against guerrillas who claim to be fighting for Palestinian rights.
A Clinton administration official said that the White House had hoped to announce the session Thursday but that it was impossible to complete all of the details in time for that. Apparently the administration held off on the announcement, hoping to add to the list of Arab governments that said they were willing to take part.
"We are seeking the widest possible participation," one administration official said.
Jordan, Israel, Egypt and the Palestine Liberation Organization are expected to attend, and American officials are trying to convince other nations to participate. State-owned Israel Radio said Russia and the European Union as well as some Gulf states and North African countries will also participate.
Officials said that the meeting will take place at a Sinai peninsula resort, either Taba or Sharm el Sheikh.
Clinton plans to visit Israel next Thursday after the one-day meeting.
Although U.S. officials raised the idea in private conversations with Arab and Israeli leaders early this week, the first public call for such a meeting came from Yasser Arafat on Wednesday.
Arafat, who used terrorism freely during decades of low-level warfare against Israel, now heads the Palestinian self-rule authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, established under a peace agreement with the Israelis.
Jordan's King Hussein, visiting Clinton at the White House, joined in calling for regionwide efforts to stop terrorism.
"We are more than shocked, we are really angered by what we have seen in the way of violence in our part of the world, and we must do everything we can to put an end to this," Hussein told reporters with Clinton at his side before the two men began a 40-minute meeting at the White House on Thursday.
Clinton and Hussein stressed that the world community must take firm action to thwart the Hamas terrorist campaign.
"These people are trying to scuttle the peace process and destroy all that has been achieved, and they must never succeed, and we will do whatever we can towards that end," the monarch said.
Clinton hinted of his plans for the meeting during the joint news conference.
"We're working on the things that we ought to do," the president said. "We'll have some decisions in the next couple of days about where we go from here."
Although Israeli and Arab leaders have met in two regional economic summits, they have never before come together for such a purely political purpose as fighting terrorism.
A meeting to discuss ways of stopping Islamic militants from attacking Israel would have been unthinkable just a few years ago--before Israel signed peace accords with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The decision to meet in the Sinai also has tremendous symbolic importance. Israel returned the strategic peninsula to Egypt as a result of the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
If Taba is selected, it would have an added significance because the resort town, just south of the Israeli city of Eilat, was built by the Israelis on land that they expected to retain. But when international arbitrators ruled that the narrow strip of land was actually in Egypt, the Israelis reluctantly relinquished it in 1989.
Israel Radio had reported Thursday that the meeting would take place. At that time, administration officials insisted that the deal was not yet done.
"They may be right, eventually, but they're not right at this moment," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said at midday. "There hasn't been any final determination of how leaders could best make these expressions of support for the peace process and for efforts to combat terrorism."
Hussein was in the United States for a medical checkup, but after the terrorist attacks in neighboring Israel, the administration gave the visit high-profile treatment to underline U.S. support for the Hashemite kingdom.
Officials praised Hussein for his condemnation of the terrorist attacks and for supporting U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iraq.
In Amman, Jordan announced that it has seized aircraft spare parts and other supplies headed for Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions, the Associated Press reported.
It was the third time in three months that Jordan has reported seizing contraband destined for Iraq.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this report.