Tel Aviv Diary: Why Liberal Israelis Have Warmed to Ruby Rivlin

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin smiles during a photo opportunity with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (not seen) in New York City on January 26. The president’s actions since assuming office have earned Rivlin the respect and affection of Tel Aviv’s residents. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

On Wednesday, Israeli President Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House.

Rivlin, who was elected in 2014 to succeed the profoundly popular President Shimon Peres, is from a distinguished revisionist (right-wing Zionist) family and was a Knesset minister and speaker of the Knesset representing the Likud party.

Rivlin has persistently opposed the idea of an independent Palestinian state, adopting instead the rallying cry that the Land of Israel should not be divided.

Based on everything I have written up to this point, one would never think Rivlin would be particularly popular in liberal Tel Aviv. However, a few weeks ago, at the rally honoring the memory of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Rivlin was the Israeli who was most enthusiastically received by the crowd.

So how did a traditionally right-wing member of Likud become the most beloved politician of the residents of Tel Aviv?

Clear foreshadowing of what the future would portend was present in the period leading up to Rivlin's election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried everything in his power to ensure Rivlin would not get elected. Netanyahu even considered finding a way for Peres to remain in office for an additional year.

So it seems the old adage "You can know a man by the enemies he makes" has certainly augured well for Rivlin, since Israel's liberals are united in one thing: their deep-seated dislike of Netanyahu.

Nonetheless, it has been the president's actions since assuming office that earned Rivlin the respect and affection of Tel Aviv's residents.

Rivlin's unequivocal criticism of violence of any kind—especially assaults aimed at Arabs—was a welcome voice of calm at a time when many politicians were silent. In October 2014, Rivlin proclaimed: "The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment."

In October this year, Rivlin gave an insightful address in which he talked about the tribal nature of Israeli society, made up of four main tribes—the secular, the national-religious, the ultra-religious and the Arab-Israeli.

Yet perhaps the most revealing and substantial moment came after the heinous attack by Jewish extremists on an Arab family in the town of Duma. In response to the Duma atrocity, Rivlin declared:

More than feeling ashamed, I feel pain. Pain for the murder of this small child. Pain that my people have chosen the path of terror and lost their humanity on the way.

This way is not my way. This way is not the way of the State of Israel, nor the way of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, to this point, we seem to have addressed the phenomenon of Jewish terrorism too casually. Maybe we have not sufficiently recognized the fact that we are facing an ideological group—one that is both dangerous and determined to destroy the bridges we have worked so hard to build.

Two months ago, I attended a reception and meeting at the president's residence in Jerusalem. The meeting was held under the auspices of the president by a committee in which Rivlin is a member, whose goal is to find ways to integrate Israeli-Arabs into Israel's advanced economy.

This initiative in cooperation is one Rivlin's favorite projects. At the conference, Rivlin made clear how important he believed the integration of Arab-Israelis into the mainstream is for Israeli society.

Although Rivlin believes that all of the Land of Israel should be part of the state of Israel, he is equally vigilant in his belief that every citizen is entitled to the same equal rights and protections. Rivlin was repulsed by Netanyahu's Election Day call to his right-wing faithful by vilifying "Arabs 'galloping' to the polls" (meaning that it is imperative for you, right-wing devotees, to rush out as well).

For Rivlin, democracy and equality are core values in Israel. Last week, in an interview with the French magazine Politique Internationale, he called for the establishment of a confederation of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, with two separate constitutions and one army.

And so the disciple of Ze'ev Jabotinsky (leader and visionary of Israel's pre-state right-wing revisionist movement) has come to the conclusion that in order to protect the civil rights of all citizens (a value painstakingly dear to Rivlin's heart), Israel and the Palestinians must find a way to separate from one another.

On Wednesday, when Rivlin meets the U.S. president, Obama will be meeting with the most popular politician in Israel (at least as far as the residents of Tel Aviv are concerned). Many just wish the Israeli office of the president were not largely ceremonial and even more fervently wish Rivlin were the one tasked with implementing policy for the state of Israel.

Marc Schulman is the editor of