Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai yesterday replaced Avi Benayahu as Israel Defense Forces spokesman. A handover ceremony was held at General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv, under the shadow of renewed hostilities in the south.

Benayahu, who served for more than three and a half years in this position, maintained a high media profile and wielded considerable influence over former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. He maintained a complex apparatus of ties with most senior journalists and central Israeli media.

Benayahu's success as spokesman was overshadowed in the past year by the deteriorating relations between Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Benayahu, who was first implicated in the Harpaz document aimed at affecting the choice of Ashkenazi's successor, was later cleared of all suspicion. However, he became the central figure in the dispute between the chief of staff and defense minister and their respective aides. Consequently he was frequently targetted personally by the defense minister's aides.

On the other hand, Benayahu dealt out his share of jabs at Barak, who did not attend the handover ceremony.

Mordechai's demeanor is expected to be very different from Benayahu's, due to the two men's different characters and the differences between their bosses. Mordechai, whose main military training is in intelligence and as recent head of the IDF's Civil Administration, is widely respected. However he is completely new to work with the media and questions have been raised about his media savviness.

He is entering a complex and difficult arena, where his actions will have repercussions beyond issuing statements and chatting daily with military correspondents. The last chiefs of staff attributed to their spokesman's duties much greater importance than they were willing to admit. The spokesman's job may not be in a life-and-death situation, as intelligence operations are, but it does involve personal prestige, organizational skills and a lot of power struggles and arm-twisting vis-a-vis the journalists.

Gaza's shadow hovered over the ceremony, after an anti-tank missile was fired at a school bus, seriously wounded a 16-year-old youth, and the IDF's retaliation. Mordechai may yet find himself a wartime spokesman faster than he had planned.

Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was Benayahu's war. The IDF's restrictions on media access to Gaza and its obstinate refusal to admit to malfunctions and attacks of Palestinian civilians fueled the world's harsh reaction to the army's acts, peaking in the accusations appearing in the Goldstone report.