erdogan - AFP - September 14 2011
Egyptian leader Mohammed Tantawi, left, showing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, far right, paintings of Egyptian defense ministers from the early last century in Cairo yesterday. Photo by AFP
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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday in Cairo it was time to run the Palestinian flag up over the United Nations, in a rallying call to Arab states ahead of a Palestinian UN membership bid, which is opposed by Washington.

During a 30-minute speech to the Arab League, Erdogan, who has enjoyed a warm reception on his three-day visit to Egypt, was interrupted several times by applause.

Erdogan said Israel had undermined its legitimacy by irresponsible behavior. Erdogan has dramatically upped Turkey's influence in the Middle East as the region is swept by revolts and uprisings. At the same time, many Arabs have cheered his increasingly confrontational stance toward Israel.

Angered by Israel's refusal to apologize for the deaths on a Turkish flotilla ship to Gaza last year, Turkey suspended military ties with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats, pledged to support the Palestinians' statehood bid and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.

Israel "must pay the price for the crimes it committed," Erdogan said in his speech to the foreign ministers of Arab states.

"It (Israel ) acts irresponsibly and without hesitation in smashing human dignity and international law by carrying [out] assaults on international convoys, which carry nothing but food and toys for children," Erdogan said.

Such assaults "threaten the Israeli nation," he said. "The Israeli people became a besieged nation."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor refused to comment on Erdogan's address.

Israel has defended its raid last year on the flotilla to Gaza, saying its troops were attacked by passengers as they boarded and were defending themselves.

Last week, Israel expressed regret for the loss of lives aboard the flotilla and said it was time for the two countries to restore their former close ties.

Erdogan also voiced his support for the Palestinians' initiative to win recognition of statehood from the United Nations, and said that "this is not an option but a necessity."

"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.

Erdogan said Turkey had 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," the Turkish premier said.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby introduced Erdogan, 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 Arab League meet, 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 Assad ) and asking him to quit."

"Erdogan! Erdogan!" cheered a group of demonstrators as the Turkish prime minister left the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League. 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.

Erdogan's tour will include Tunisia and Libya, which both witnessed the fall of entrenched leaders in grassroots revolts this year, part of the Arab spring challenging the old order across the region.