by David Bernstein

I’m at the Herzliya Conference in Israel, titled “The Balance of Israel’s National Security,” where strategic thinkers gather to discuss the big issues facing Israel, The West and humanity.

Even under normal circumstances–that is, when I’m in the US–I feel a constant tension between optimism and pessimism, between the possibilities of human progress and the sense of impending doom.

That’s because I’m Jewish.

At Herzliya and, more generally, in Israel, I feel these conflicting impulses even more acutely. That’s because when I’m in Israel I’m even more Jewish.

I’m listening to an interesting debate on the consequences of peak oil. We are all sadly aware of the pivotal role oil dependence plays in world affairs.

Yossi Hollander, Chairman of the Israeli Institute for Economic Planning, predicts direly that the coming oil shortage will cause 100 million deaths in Africa in the next decade and spark conflict worldwide.

David Hobbs, Chief Energy Strategist at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, paints a far more positive picture, pointing out that the same has been said for decades by Malthusians about a food shortage. Hobbs argues that the world isn’t even close to paying the true price of the utility of oil. Once it’s forced to do so, as it may be in short order, human innovation will kick in and produce energy alternatives.

In his keynote address, former Secretary of Treasury Lawrence Summers rejected the prediction that American power is on the decline. He pointed out that such predictions have been made and proven wrong for decades, most recently in the 1980s in projecting Japan’s eclipse of the US on the world stage. Summers stated that the standard of living in today’s China is roughly what it was in the US at the turn of the twentieth century. China has a long way to go. And the US has proven it’s resiliency over and over again in the face of profound economic and security changes.

Another doomsday scenario we’ve heard in recent years was the supposed demographic catastrophe facing Israel. It was said that the collective Palestinian population in Israel and the Territories would soon surpass the Jewish population, rendering Israel an Apartheid state. Lo and behold, hundreds of thousands of Jews arrived from the Former Soviet Union. Israel then disengaged from 1.5 million Palestinians from Gaza. The demographic tragedy was at least temporarily averted.

But the long-term demographic threat still remains. Optimism is a state of mind, not a plan. There’s a great deal of talk, of course, about the future of Egypt. While I hope for the best, it’s hard to be sanguine in the short-term about democratic transformation in Egypt and the larger Arab world.

There’s a difference between optimism and blind faith (http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-02-04/egypt-protests-obamas-flip-flop-naive-media-on-extremists-and-more-fears).

While my nature is to side with the optimists–with hope over fear–I still maintain a foot in the pessimist camp. Bad things actually have happened. Doomsday scenarios have not always been wrong.

Israel is on the verge of a major strategic setback. Israel is on the verge of a huge eruption of creativity, prosperity and even peace. I’m on the verge of going back to the hotel and watching a little TV. Then again, maybe I’ll go to the session on the future of Turkey.