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Arab views on status of Jerusalem are shifting

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CAIRO, Egypt — On the face of it, Arab support for the Palestinians has never been so unified. One after the other, Arab kings and presidents have said they stand behind Yasser Arafat's claim to East Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

But behind the uncompromising public statements, more pragmatic approaches to those thorniest of issues are being discussed seriously among Arab leaders for the first time.

There have even been signs of subtle shifts in the once monolithic Arab public opinion that Arab Muslims should have exclusive sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

In the 10 days since the Camp David talks broke down, on this and other previously taboo issues, Arab leaders have been absorbed in their most intense consultations ever on how to find a swift, workable deal that would combine both symbol and substance for both sides.

Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has shuttled around the region. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has received a string of Arab leaders at his summer palace in Alexandria, where Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel arrived for talks on Thursday.

And Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now an assistant secretary of state, has gone to Saudi Arabia as part of his tour of Arab nations that rely to some degree on U.S. money or military backing.

A new Arab consensus on these issues could ultimately make an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians possible, analysts and diplomats say, if Israel also compromises at least in symbolic ways on viewing Jerusalem as its eternal undivided capital and on Palestinian refugees as a resettlement problem for the rest of the world.

Arab leaders are now facing internal and external pressure to play a role in forging a final settlement.

One reason is that both of the most contentious issues on the table — Jerusalem and refugees — carry implications for leaders other than Arafat and for peoples other than the Palestinians.

Jordan is home to more Palestinian refugees than any other Arab country. Egypt is a leading U.S. ally in the region and has the status of the only Arab state to have reached a peace agreement with Israel.

And the approval of Saudi Arabia, as the keeper of Islam's holiest sites outside Jerusalem, is essential to any shift, no matter how subtle, in the Arab position on the Holy City.