Why The Brits Abstained
On November 29, 1947, the world voted Israel into existence when it accepted the partition plan that would end the British mandate and divide Mandatory Palestine into two distinct entities: Israel and Palestine. The United Kingdom abstained. Having done battle with both the Jewish and Arab populations since before the end of the Ottoman Empire, the dual promises and obligations had untangled into uprisings, many of them bloody, and endless commissions, reports and White Papers. The vote gave the United Kingdom a way to 'exit gracefully' by passing on the problem to the United Nations.
Flash forward 65 years and the world votes Palestine into existence, albeit as an observer state. Britain abstains again, on account of lack of assurances on key issues including resumption of peace negotiations and guarantees on the use of the International Criminal Court.
So why the cold feet twice? Perhaps in 1947 we could put it down to Britain not wishing to leave the final mark of its Empire on a region that it believed would end up in a perpetual cycle of war and violence (and should that be the case, how right they were). But today, in a country where political leaders bend over backwards to acknowledge Israel's right to exist (here and here, for example), make no bones about the fact that they think the only way forward is a two-state solution, and become increasingly vocal every day about the negative impact of settlement building on the possibility of a two state solution, why do they abstain?
The optimistic answer is as follows: The United Kingdom genuinely believes that the vote, without the assurances, takes both sides further away from a much needed set of negotiations and, in particular, the threat of the ICC is so grave for Israel, and would anger Netanyahu so much, that it would make any form of discussion nigh on impossible. Plus, the precondition that the Palestinians are demanding—that settlement building ends in all areas before the two sides come to the table—is never going to be agreed upon, and therefore Britain wants to take the precondition out of the picture in the hope that it might curry them some favor with both sides for having supported the vote but removed the precondition.
The pessimistic answer is somewhat different: the Brits are scared of Bibi. When they express their concern at unchecked settlement growth, they are met with a harsh reaction from Netanyahu, who is able to spin the criticism to his political advantage. Not even support for military action in Operation Pillar of Defense buys the UK any political capital. Netanyahu can tell his electorate that the major powers are right behind him and those who cry wolf over Israel's growing international isolation are to be dismissed. So, by opting for a yes, imposing a set of 'preconditions' on that yes, which were unlikely to ever be met, the Brits have, in actual fact, opted for damage limitation in relation to how their behavior may be spun by Netanyahu to his advantage.
But here's the thing: had that vote passed with the UK's support, and had they received the assurances they wanted, it may have been hugely counterproductive to the UK's aims. Abbas, the man they hope can one day sit face to face with Netanyahu, would have returned to Ramallah with a yes vote but a totally blank sheet of paper, more emasculated than he already is in the eyes of his people. Hardly someone who could then bring the Palestinian people to forge a historic peace agreement.
Most likely what will happen now is that Britain will return to being angry—and not at Mahmoud Abbas. They will again be faced with the question of how to actually wield any useful influence over a non-existent peace process. One thing's for sure: fence sitting might work when the outcome is pre-determined, as it was last night, but without significant pressure being brought to bear by Europe, on the United States and on both parties in the region, to kick-start a political process, we might as well sit back, relax, and watch the pantomime continue to unravel in the form of grandstanding, preconditions on preconditions, and building.