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Prime Minister Aril Sharon does not intend to take action against the senior Likud members who supported moving up the date for the party primaries. In talks with members of his inner circle yesterday he said he would not "take revenge against my conspirators." It was a reference mainly to cabinet ministers Limor Livnat, Danny Naveh and Israel Katz (education, health, and agriculture ministers, respectively), as well as deputy minister Gila Gamliel and party whip Gideon Sa'ar.

Sharon expressed anger mostly with regard to Livnat and Gamliel, both of whom attacked him sharply at Monday's Likud Central Committee meeting. Sharon's confidants said yesterday that they expected the ministers serving in the government whose leader they sought to replace would voluntarily resign from the cabinet, but they emphasized that the prime minister would not take any steps against them or their ministries.

The supporters of former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to shake off the "serial loser" label that is threatening to stick to him - promoted with great pleasure by Sharon's aides. Netanyahu's backers argued that the central committee vote was not a defeat, but "a thin, almost coincidental victory for Sharon. Half of the central committee is with Bibi [Netanyahu]." They added: "It was only a small battle. We will win in the primaries."

Netanyahu said the election was swayed by Likud Central Committee members who he said caved into pressure and offers of patronage jobs from the prime minister's camp.

Sharon's margin of victory was a slim 104 votes. The 1,433 to 1,329 victory over Netanyahu, who pushed for holding the primary in 60 days, puts a freeze on the struggle within the Likud until April, the original date for the primaries.

Netanyahu is clearly already preparing for the primary, but his media appearances yesterday exposed the wounds he suffered in his humiliating and unexpected defeat. On the morning after Monday's vote, Netanyahu woke up to find that many of the "Likud rebels" had deserted him, and most were swearing loyalty to Sharon and the coalition.