CAIRO, Egypt -- Syria, Egypt and six Persian Gulf countries gave general backing yesterday to President Bush's approach to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict amid hints that encouraging steps by Israel could open the way to the Arabs' making peace with the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State James A. Baker III appeared likely to meet in Israel with Palestinian representatives at a session sanctioned by, but not including, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The two developments capped the first leg of Mr. Baker's postwar mission to shore up regional security arrangements, restart the Arab-Israeli peace process and spur economic cooperation in the region.
Together, they heightened pressure on Israel, where Mr. Baker arrives this afternoon, to show some flexibility on solving the Palestinian problem or be cast as an obstacle to progress.
Sounding distinctly more optimistic than when he left Washington, Mr. Baker told reporters en route to Cairo from Saudi Arabia last night, "I've been exploring with our Arab coalition partners what steps they might be able to take to signal their commitment to peace and reconciliation with Israel."
He said he had outlined his approach to Israelis before the trip began, "and I am now going to have the opportunity when we get to Israel to talk in detail and specifically with their leaders about what steps they might be willing to consider.
"I don't think it's surprising that you don't have Arab governments coming out and unilaterally making statements about steps that they would be willing to take in the absence of knowing a little bit more but what might develop as the process moves forward.
"I think that the Arab governments with whom we talked generally about this today exhibited . . . a greater willingness to be active than they had in the past or than they did before the gulf crisis was resolved."
He said their willingness extended to both "tracks" he is pursuing: solving the Palestinian conflict and ending the Arabs' formal state of war with Israel.
The eight Arab states, in a statement issued in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, "expressed their appreciation" for Mr. Bush's speech Wednesday night to Congress "which dealt positively with the security of this region and the Palestinian question."
"They expressed their determination to continue cooperation with the president of the United States and the secretary of state to bring about a successful outcome of these issues," he said.
Mr. Bush had said that "a comprehensive peace must be grounded in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. This principle must be elaborated to provide for Israel's security and recognition and at the same time for legitimate Palestinian rights."
The Arab statement did not mention recognizing Israel. Of the eight, only Egypt has made peace with Israel.
The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, questioned by reporters, refused to say whether Saudi Arabia or the other Arab states were prepared to recognize the Jewish state.
But he added, "We are discussing all that the president has said."
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who chaired a meeting yesterday in Riyadh among the United States, Egypt, Syria and the six gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- said that "we support" the president's initiative and that Mr. Baker's mission was a "very positive step."
Mr. Baker said his own sense of the Arabs' willingness to make progress toward peace stemmed from more than just their formal statement.
He said he hadn't asked them to commit themselves to specific steps "in the absence of knowing what might or might not be possible on the other side of the equation."
He said Palestinians had expressed an interest in meeting with him while he's in Israel, but didn't have a final answer on whether the meeting would occur.
The PLO, based in Tunis, Tunisia, has given a "green light" to having its unofficial representatives meet with Mr. Baker, according to reports in the daily Al-Fajr newspaper, which is linked to the PLO.
The United States suspended its dialogue with the PLO last year after the group refused to denounce and punish those responsible for a terrorist attack on Israel.
A senior State Department official traveling with Mr. Baker said the United States was not resuming the dialogue but indicated that it did not matter to the United States whether the PLO supported the meeting.
The Palestinian representatives likely to be at such a meeting are those whom U.S. diplomats and Israeli officials meet with "all the time," the official said.
Yesterday's meeting in Riyadh solidified the dominant political and military bloc in the Arab world.
Symbolizing their cooperation with the United States, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria rode with Mr. Baker to his plane, with Prince Saud driving the Mercedes.
The emerging Persian Gulf security structure includes Syrian and Egyptian forces, a strengthened U.S. naval presence, frequent ground and air exercises and pre-positioned U.S. equipment.