Nobody accuses people of crossing just any line in Israel; whether the issue is Iran, a newspaper strike or supermarket etiquette, that line is always red.
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Sometimes the line is one that’s already been crossed. An Israeli blogger complained in September about seeing a child in a supermarket alternating between licking a strawberry ice cream cone (which I can only assume came from the store) and popping cherry tomatoes from the produce section into his mouth. “If that’s not crossing a kav adom [red line],” he wrote, “I don’t know what a red line is.”
It’s a term that’s particularly beloved of politicians. Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich announced in October that a one-day strike by Haaretz workers was itself a kav adom showing that the free press in Israel is in danger of collapse.
This week Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israeli construction in the E-1 corridor linking Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim is a “red line” for the Palestinians. In that case, it’s a line that must not be crossed.
More memorably perhaps, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a literal red line on a cartoon-like illustration of a bomb during a UN speech in September to demonstrate the point by which the Iranian nuclear program must be stopped.
"At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs,” Netanyahu said at the time. “That's by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear program."
Weapons of mass destruction seem to be a popular area for red lines, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcing earlier this week that if Syria were to use chemical weapons against rebel forces, the attack would constitute “a red line for the United States” that would trigger a U.S. reaction.
Reuters writer Bennett Ramberg picked up on this theme. “‘Red lines’ are all the rage this year,” he wrote in an analysis piece. “Even as the swirl of Middle East headlines focus on Gaza and Egyptian politics, the region remains under two ‘red lines.’ If Iran and Syria, respectively, cross the nuclear and chemical weapons thresholds, it would generate a strong, if undefined, Israeli and American response.”
But red lines have other associations as well. Americans might think of trains on the Red Line in Los Angeles or Chicago, the 1998 war drama (and 1962 novel) “The Thin Red Line,” or the act of “redlining” the poor by discriminating against them in housing or insurance.
In Israel, though, the kav adom has an added significance all its own, referring as it does to the line on Lake Kinneret below which the contents of Israel’s only natural freshwater lake dwindle to dangerously low levels.
When Israelis talk about the Kinneret’s kav adom, they are usually referring to the kav ha’adom hatahton, the lower red line, which is set at 213 meters below sea level and marks the lowest water level administratively allowed to operate in the Kinneret, according to a 2005 research paper by the Center for Environmental Policy Studies.
“The red lines serve as a warning signal, and indicate a crisis situation that requires re-examination of the water pumping management system in Israel as a whole, and especially in the Kinneret basin,” the paper states.
These red lines aren’t just the realm of environmentalists, though. They are a common feature of just about any winter weather story in the Israeli media, which are typically limited to rain, flooding and the Kinneret’s red lines, with the occasional nod to snow in the Golan Heights or, occasionally, Jerusalem.
Whether they’re on a bomb or in a lake, literal or figurative, red lines are a prominent part of Israeli discourse -- especially during the winter rainy season.