The Bush administration called for renewed peace efforts in the Mideast Sunday, but stopped short of criticizing Israel for what Arab nations have said was an excessive use of military forces in the escalating conflict this weekend.
Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney said the fighting that left six Israelis and 16 Palestinians dead over the weekend was "obviously very worrisome," but Cheney refrained from urging Israel not to use U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes to attack Palestinians.
In retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bomber blowing up an Israeli shopping center Friday morning, Israel struck the Palestinians with F-16s, the first time in 34 years warplanes were used against Palestinian targets.
"I think both sides should stop and think about where they're headed here," Cheney said when asked about the planes. "The developments in the last two days are obviously very worrisome," Cheney told NBC, adding that President Bush "has been engaged actively" in the situation.
"We've always said that both sides should avoid provocative steps," such as Israeli settlement construction, Cheney said.
Cheney said a coming report on the crisis, from a commission led by former Democratic senator George Mitchell, "will provide some basis" for a U.S. role.
The report, to be released Monday by already widely read, has heightened expectations that Washington will be more aggressive. The increasing clashes are seen as testing Bush's reluctance to get directly involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
In fact, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been asked to do everything possible to "convince Arafat to stop the violence," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's office said in a statement.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has held firm on the view that it is premature for Washington to sponsor peace talks. But with events close to spinning out of control, the impulse to act more forcefully may be impossible for the administration to ignore.
Lawmakers were also weighing in on the conflict's latest bloody developments, with Republican Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., saying the Bush administration should make proposals "that would be at least a basis for ratcheting down" the violence and appoint a special envoy to the region.
"I think we have to re-engage, and forcefully so, before the situation spreads throughout the Middle East," McCain said.
McCain said the use of the warplane is "an indication of the escalation and even perhaps spiraling out of control of this situation."
Asked if Israel was using the planes for legitimate defense purposes, McCain said, "To a large degree, it's understandable, when these kinds of acts of terror are being orchestrated from a terrorist organization" that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "is condoning, if not encouraging."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert faulted the Clinton administration for pushing "very, very hard to get a peace agreement," and in doing so, jeopardizing the government of dovish Ehud Barak, the former prime minister defeated by hard-liner Sharon earlier this year.
"As a result, we have a different administration there that has a different attitude," Hastert said on Fox News Sunday.
"I'm just saying that's their attitude. That's for their political survival right now. We have to work through those problems. We need to find some answers. We need to bring people to the table," Hastert said.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in comments published Sunday, said his country will do "what it takes" to protect its people.
The recent escalation of violence led Arab foreign ministers and delegates, meeting Saturday in Egypt, to ask Arab governments to sever political contact with Israel until it ceased military action against Palestinians.
But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Sunday that Egypt and Jordan will not give up their efforts to relaunch the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.