The thing about Israel is it very much group based. It is almost impossible to make it there unless one is part of some group. I am not sure why this is but experience shows it to be the case. My own experience was such that the first time I went there I was part of a group. Rav Ernster was staring the place in Safed called Meor Chaim and he invited me from the Mirrer Yeshiva in NY to be part of his Kollel. So in fact without my being aware of its importance I was in fact part of a group. Later on I tried to go there on my own and it always ended in failure.

It is easy to ignore what you have when you don't realize how important it is. My first trip to Israel the road was paved by the State of Israel itself and the community in Meor Chaim. Later on I made several attempts at just showing up and paying rent in any old place and someone found that it was impossible to survive.
So I do think living in Israel is a Mitzvah, but it must be done in the context of some "misgeret" group.
I should mention that it is a positive command [one of the 613 mitzvot] according to the Ramban (Nachmanides). But not to the Rambam [Maimonides]. But it still is a mitzvah to the opinion of the Rambam.

If you grew up in a time in the USA when individuality was the primary principle, and to shoot straight from the hip (speak your mind straight), then this idea of the need to be part of a group is almost impossible to accept. But in a practical sense it is impossible to avoid if one wants to succeed in making Aliyah.
 Israel however even as a short stop over is an amazing place. Though it is hard to stay there on any kind of long term basis, still ever time I went there I had some kind of breakthrough in different subjects. Torah Music, Math etc.

Before going to Israel I recommend getting an appreciation for the place perhaps from the books of Avraham Kook or the books of the Gra like the Kol HaTor