CAIRO Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday it was time to run the Palestinian flag up over the United Nations in a rallying call to Arab states ahead of a Palestinian U.N. membership bid opposed by Washington.
Speaking to Arab foreign ministers, he said Israel had undermined its legitimacy by irresponsible behaviour. He made no specific accusations but has in the past criticised Israel for building settlements on occupied land envisaged as part of a Palestinian state.
He has also protested over Israel's offensive against Gaza in 2008, which largely spelt the end of a close alliance between Turkey and Israel, and its attack on a Turkish ship heading for Gaza that killed nine people last year.
Erdogan's recent criticism of Israel has drawn strong support in the Arab world, buttressing his campaign to promote Ankara's blend of Islam and democracy as a model for movements that have toppled several Arab autocrats, including Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
"While Israel is trying to secure its legitimacy in our region on one hand, it is taking irresponsible steps which unsettle its legitimacy on the other," Erdogan said.
With the souring of relations between Turkey and Israel, military cooperation has been frozen and diplomatic ties downgraded.
Erdogan's tour will include Tunisia and Libya, which have all witnessed the fall of entrenched leaders to grassroots revolts this year, challenging the old order across the region.
"Erdogan, Erdogan!" cheered a group of demonstrators as the Turkish prime minister left the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo where he had been speaking. They were calling for change in Syria, whose military is trying to stamp out popular unrest.
Displaying a populist touch, Erdogan stopped and shook the demonstrators' hands.
He told an Arab League ministers meeting that international recognition of a Palestinian state was "not an option but an obligation."
"It's time to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations. Let's raise the Palestinian flag and let that flag be the symbol of peace and justice in the Middle East. Let's contribute to securing well deserved peace and stability in the Middle East," he said.
Palestinians will bid for full membership of the United Nations later this month, a move opposed by the United States, which has a veto. Arab states endorsed it at the Cairo meeting.
Erdogan said Turkey offered its help to Arab nations facing turmoil but, in an apparent reference to Syria, he said some had turned down the offer.
"However, we continue to insist they meet their people's demands."
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby introduced the Turkish prime minister saying: "All the Arab peoples appreciate what you are doing. We consider that there is a strong friendly state who is always standing on the side of justice."
Outside the League, Syrian protester Samer Zaher, 30, said: "Erdogan has turned into an Arab hero ... We have not found a leader as powerful as him addressing (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) and asking him to quit."
WINNING OVER ARABS
Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador last week in a row over an Israeli raid last year that killed nine Turks on a flotilla bound for Gaza, the Palestinian enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas and under blockade by Israel.
While winning over ordinary Arabs, particularly because of non-Arab Turkey's tough line towards Israel, Erdogan's growing popularity and clout could be a headache for more cautious Arab leaders who could see their own influence overshadowed.
"Turkey wants to play a regional role, especially when Egypt is busy with the revolution. Turkey thinks it's best placed to play this leadership role," said Adel Soliman, head of Cairo's International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies.
Egypt has traditionally seen itself as the leading diplomatic player in the Arab region. But its position has been eroded by wealthy Gulf countries, such as Qatar, and lately overshadowed by Turkey, with its fast expanding economy.
Erdogan met Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council that took over after Hosni Mubarak was ousted by mass street demonstrations in February.
Egypt has also been embroiled in a dispute with Israel after Israel shot dead five Egyptian border guards in repelling cross-border raiders it said were Palestinian militants.
But Egypt's generals have faced popular criticism for not taking a firmer line. Cairo said it would expel Israel's ambassador but did not follow through with threat.
Protesters attacked Israel's embassy in Cairo last week, prompting the ambassador to fly home and an embarrassed Egyptian government to affirm to Washington, its major aid donor, that it remained committed to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt has received billions of dollars in U.S. military and other aid since making peace with the Jewish state, so the military council faces a difficult balancing act responding to public calls for an assertive policy towards Israel.
Erdogan was cheered by a crowd when he arrived in Cairo and met by Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Many appeared to be from Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who approve of Erdogan's bringing Islamists into mainstream Turkish politics.
"Erdogan, Erdogan -- a big welcome from the Brothers!" one banner said. "Hero Erdogan" was written on a photo of the prime minister.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)