I think you may take some the things Steve wrote too literaly.
For example, being a "sovereign nation" he likely meant a "singular nation in control of its own destiny" (that no one else would have the right to rule, aka the Egyptians.) How about "a nation on the them(our)selves?" As you say, "we were strangers in other lands."
As for seriously or not seriously believing in the claim of religion to keep the nation whole (and then to return to Israel)...
First, Jews certainly did pray for "next year in Jerusalem," and likely prayed to no longer be strangers in foreign lands... so Steve's point there is about people, and not G-d.
As for claiming knowledge of G-d's design, certainly there are vague prophesies that say the Jews shall return - to say you know when is a bit of a stretch, but, on the other hand, you have prophesy, the prophesy looks like it may have been fullfilled... we're not talking a massive logical leap here.
As to the holiness of places - there are places in Israel where Jews of faith believe that G-d spoke with man, and or that he ASSIGNED holiness to. There are also burial places, etc, that have their own holiness to them.
If you have faith in these things, and have faith that G-d did "choose" the people of Israel and grant them this land, then, again, it is no stretch to believe that the land in Israel is "more holy" - that maybe the connection to G-d for Jews is a little better there.