The Netziv supported the Chovevei Tzion movement, but at the same time he cautioned that settling the land should never be associated with messianism, the Temple or the redemption in any way. When asked in 1891 whether Rabbi Hirsch Kalischer’s book should be reprinted, he responded:
All these things were only considered appropriate [by Rabbi Kalischer] because he thought that the light of redemption had begun to shine in his time. But in our time, when we are in exile and new decrees are constantly made, it is forbidden for us to mention the idea of redemption in connection with the settlement of the Land. For without a doubt the Sultan and his ministers will hear that Jewish settlement in the Land is the beginning of redemption, and he will, G-d forbid, put a stop to all settlement. Other governments will get worried about it and pass decrees like those of Haman, G-d spare us. Therefore, G-d forbid to point out any signs of redemption in connection with the project of settling the Land. Rather, Hashem has inspired our hearts to build up the ruins of the Land and make it a settled place; more than this we do not know. We must not speak about it, but only wait and believe in our hearts that there will be a redemption, in whatever way Hashem wants, according to our deeds. Therefore I do not approve of the republication of the book Drishas Tzion, for it contains a danger to the entire project [of settling the Land]. May Hashem Yisborach show us the straight path, and may we be successful in doing His will, to build up the ruins of the Land, and may we merit to see Israel in their dwellings.
If the Netziv was worried about a mere book arousing the anger of the nations, he would certainly not have approved of an armed takeover of Eretz Yisroel, followed by 63 years of continual war.
The Netziv also says that the Jewish people’s survival is a clear demonstration of Divine Providence, and he understands that this is the meaning of G-d’s promise to Yaakov Avinu: “And your descendents will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out west, east, north and south; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendents” (Bereishis 28:14). “Like the dust of the earth” means, as the Sforno explains it, that the Jewish people will be in exile, as low as dust. Only afterwards will they “spread out” in the Holy Land at the redemption. “The families of the earth will be blessed through you” means that during exile, when the nations witness the Jewish people’s wondrous survival and come to recognize the greatness of the Shepherd who watches over them. This recognition is only possible during exile (Haamek Davar, Vayeitzei).
The Mechilta (introduction to Beshalach) says: The Bnei Ephraim were killed when they escaped from Egypt 30 years early, as Scripture says, “For they did not keep the covenant of G-d and they refused to follow His Torah” (Tehillim 78:10). They transgressed the End and the Oath. The Netziv comments: The explanation of this oath is the verse, “I have adjured you, daughters of Jerusalem, not to arouse…” The Gemara explains in Kesubos and in the Midrash there, that He made them swear not to force the end. This was known by tradition to the Jews who went down to Egypt. (Birkas Hanetziv)